2. The National–High Violet

Best of 2010One night, back in May, a sprawling, vaguely tipsy conversation had alighted on whether writing could truly convey one’s thoughts, as sometimes we have the capacity to think, to feel, to experience without having the appropriate vocabulary on hand to adequately represent those particular moments in our lives. Although the original subject matter had been literature, it didn’t take me long to steer it towards the inevitable terrain of music and the example I found myself citing was this very album: ‘High Violet’. It’s an album which can defy description – but please don’t stop reading, I think I’ve just about cracked it.

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I’d been listening to it on the train en route that night, staring out wistfully at the rapidly changing sights before they retreated into the distance. It seemed so perfectly suited to that moment. But it had also seemed perfectly suited as an accompaniment to an early morning walk to my local sorting office some days prior to that, the propulsion of Bryan Devendorf’s drumming falling sweetly in line with my determined pace. Indeed, this record is seemingly the perfect soundtrack to life itself, having spent much of the year with it never far from my grasp. ‘High Violet’ was released at a tricky point in the year for me and has ended up as one of those ‘records that define a period in your life’, a title that is handed out so rarely that I still feel a little odd writing it now. Perhaps that is why I have frequently struggled to find the words to describe exactly what is so great about ‘High Violet’ – I don’t want to explain it, I don’t want to box it off, say “done” and move on, leaving this record behind as a classic of a certain year. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been truly head over heels with a record and it’s a feeling I’d like to last as long as possible because it’s an absolute joy, something I’ve been lucky enough to experience with two albums this year.

But, if I carry on writing about not writing, I’m going to end up coming across as some sort of sub-Paul Morley twerp and that really isn’t my intention. This record is littered with slow-burning melodies that catch you unawares and then lay siege to your mind in five or six second loops for days on end. Initial listens might not convince you that you’re in the presence of greatness, but make an exception, for me. Try it a couple of times back to back, see which tracks start to dominate, which guitar refrains resonate with you and which moments of understated vocal performance really communicate a sense of paranoia, frustration or loss. Which is not to say that this is either a depressing album or an album in which one might wallow. Yes, Matt Berninger’s baritone hardly conjures images of rolling green fields and sunny evenings, but, as with the Tindersticks, this doesn’t automatically make for gloomy music. There are moments on ‘High Violet’ that are plain euphoric; I’ve found myself over-enthusiastically air-drumming to ‘Conversation 16’ and recent single ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, while the choruses of both ‘Anyone’s Ghost’ and ‘Afraid Of Everyone’, even despite the latter’s obviously bleak outlook, have restorative effects far beyond mere food and drink.

The cohesive nature of this album ensures that I can’t just hear one song from it; I need to hear them all. Ticking all of the boxes for a first track, ‘Terrible Love’ slowly builds from fuzzy uncertainty to layered enormity with true class and the washes of sound establish a fairly consistent approach for the subsequent ten tunes. The purple patch from ‘Afraid Of `Everyone’ to ‘Conversation 16‘, comprising five songs in all, is as good a run of tracks on any release I’ve heard so far this year. Recently released in an ‘Expanded Version’, including a re-working of that tremendous opening track which smoothed things up and added stadium drums and several new tracks good enough to belong on the main album itself. ‘Wake Up Your Saints’ is a strident beast of a song and the poppiest thing on either disc, suggesting that The National are close to what some are calling their ‘R.E.M. moment’ with the next album.

High Violet’ is the single most complete rock record I’ve heard in yonks. It fits together as one unit of eleven tunes which simply belong together. These are ambitious songs, delivered on a grand scale, without losing sight of the end goal. These aren’t airbrushed out of existence like Kings Of Leon and they’re just not confident enough to sound like the aforementioned R.E.M. The fidgety nature of Berninger’s delivery, part anxious, part ‘Murmur’, is absolutely consuming and I still adore putting this album on. There hasn’t been a moment since I first heard it where I have grown tired of it, or even a song upon it. It would, in any other year, have walked the Number One slot in this list and, in the early stages at least, very nearly did. Its runner-up position should not detract from its remarkable nature, nor suggest that it is anything other than of my truly cherished records. Enjoy.

A Week With… 17. The National – High Violet

Never has the title of this feature been more accurate than with this particular record. It has completely dominated the musical landscape of the last seven days. And yet, despite all of this, I find myself unable to conjure the words to successfully articulate quite why I am so utterly besotted with this particular collection of eleven songs by a band I’ve previously liked, rather than loved. I’ve already consigned three abortive attempts at this review to the binary wasteland and I’d begun to think that it just wasn’t to be. But then last night things changed.

the-national-high-violet-front-cover-art

A sprawling conversation had alighted on whether writing could truly convey thoughts, as sometimes we have the capacity to think, to feel, to experience without having the appropriate vocabulary on hand to adequately represent those particular moments in our lives. Although the original subject matter had been literature, it didn’t take me long to steer it towards the inevitable terrain of music and the example I found myself citing was this very album: ‘High Violet’. I’d been listening to it on the train en route last night, staring out wistfully at the rapidly changing sights before they retreated into the distance. It seemed so perfectly suited to that moment. But it had also seemed perfectly suited as an accompaniment to an early morning walk to my local sorting office last weekend, the propulsion of Bryan Devendorf’s drumming falling sweetly in line with my determined pace. Indeed, this record is seemingly the perfect soundtrack to life itself, for now at least. Having much to mull over at present and with a number of weeks to play out before any solace might be sought, it could well be that ‘High Violet’ is heading for that curious status of ‘record that defines a period in my life’, a title that is handed out so rarely that it’s hard to conceive of it being plausible barely a week after the album’s appearance. Perhaps that is why I can’t quite find the words right now – I don’t want to explain it, I don’t want to box it off, say “done” and move on to the next feature. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been truly head over heels with a record and it’s a feeling I’d like to last as long as possible because it’s an absolute joy.

But, if I carry on writing about not writing, I’m going to end up coming across as some sort of sub-Paul Morley twerp and that really isn’t my intention. This record is littered with slow-burning melodies that catch you unawares and then lay siege to your mind in five or six second loops for days on end. Initial listens might not convince you that you’re in the presence of greatness, but make an exception, for me. Try it a couple of times back to back, see which tracks start to dominate, which guitar refrains resonate with you and which moments of understated vocal performance really communicate a sense of paranoia, frustration or loss. Which is not to say that this is either a depressing album or an album in which one might wallow. Yes, Matt Berninger’s baritone hardly conjures images of rolling green fields and sunny evenings, but, as with the Tindersticks, this doesn’t automatically make for gloomy music. There are moments on ‘High Violet’ that are plain euphoric; I’ve found myself over-enthusiastically air-drumming to ‘Conversation 16’ and recent single ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, while the choruses of both ‘Anyone’s Ghost’ and ‘Afraid Of Anyone’, even despite the latter’s obviously bleak outlook, have restorative effects far beyond mere food and drink.

The cohesive nature of this album ensures that I can’t just hear one song from it; I need to hear them all. Ticking all of the boxes for a first track, ‘Terrible Love’ slowly builds from fuzzy uncertainty to layered enormity with true class and the washes of sound establish a fairly consistent approach for the subsequent ten tunes. The purple patch from ‘Afraid Of Anyone’ to ‘Conversation 16‘, comprising five songs in all, is as good a run of tracks on any release I’ve heard so far this year. Neil Hannon, guesting on this week’s Roundtable on 6 Music, commented on how The National sound unashamedly like The National and that, for all the influences and reference points across the album, they have a unique musical style. And he’s not wrong. The ultimate aim of this piece is to get you to explore that particular sound, to click on one of these YouTube videos or to launch the album in Spotify via the image above, so as to experience this quite remarkable record. There are many, many positive reviews out there if you’re after a very precise ‘it sounds like this’ or ‘this track’s better than that track’ kind of commentary (and yes I know that’s what I normally do and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it) but on this occasion I’m going to have to leave those conclusions up to you. Enjoy.

2010 inverted