There’s a smoothness to High Violet that never existed on Alligator, and which was hinted at on Boxer. After that last album, of course, The National were moved from Beggars Banquet to 4AD; not exactly a major league jump, perhaps a re-badging more than anything, with the Beggars group deciding that 4AD was its prime asset, and juggling its roster accordingly.
So it’s not like The National had signed for a major label. And it’s not like The National had signed for a major label on the promise of a slick studio operation, recording instead at their own Brooklyn studio, continuing a homespun tradition that dated back to their days of setting up and recording under their own label.
And yet in some ways it is like The National had made that move. Where Boxer was small but powerful, everything folded in neatly to preserve space and yet produce the most impact, High Violet is open, unfurled, and dressed to impress: once you get past opener Terrible Love, with its harsh confusion of lo-fi sounds, it’s a clean, glistening collection.
The brass has been polished for triumphal effect - you can see it shining on Bloodbuzz Ohio. No more muted horns here, while drums have had different treatment, softened - as on Lemonworld, where an oddly disjointed guitar leads the charge, Matt Berninger on point with the unsettling and unexplained: “Lay me on the table, put flowers in my mouth, and we can say that we invented a summer lovin’ torture party”.
Perhaps it’s the kind of lyric Berninger was thinking about when he provided a quote for 4AD’s marketing team:
Oddly, though this album is catchier and more fun than our other records, it’s also a lot bleaker in its ideas and themes. We started out trying to make a light and happy record, but it just didn’t happen.
Maybe the sheen on the surface of High Violet is borne of a tightly knit group (the band’s five regular members include two sets of brothers) that’s been around long enough to develop a keen sense of its strengths and weaknesses, and of a group of individuals ready to go the distance to support each other. Perhaps it’s a result of their attempts to write pop (possibly in response to a suggestion from Michael Stipe when they toured with R.E.M. - “”Why don’t you guys just write a pop song? What are you afraid of? Don’t be embarrassed”. England ought to be a pop song, or at least an alt-pop song. In other hands, maybe; care of The National its a glorious sweep of sounds, a gently flowing river of thoughts (“Someone send a runner through the weather that I’m under for the feeling that I lost today”). It is one of the most breathtakingly but at the same time fist-pumpingly beautiful moments in a career of beautiful moments.
Perhaps the sheen is just a setup for the sucker punch of the darkness that lies beneath. “And I can’t fall asleep without a little help” sings Berninger on the album’s opening track, Terrible Love. It’s a nothing line until you notice it. Then it’s crushing.
Darkness and night, times spent alone when the world is elsewhere - these are the themes that run through High Violet. “I tell you miserable things after you are asleep” confesses Berninger in Conversation 16. From ‘Anyone’s Ghost’: “Go out at night with your headphones on, again, and walk through the Manhattan valleys of the dead”. At the end comes Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, and there’s nothing left but to:
Leave your home
Change your name