Full disclosure, I could easily add every album by The National to my list of best records of the last decade. That said, I haven’t chosen their 2010 release, High Violet, like a name out of a hat.
From the very first chord on “Terrible Love,” there is a warmth to this record that I cannot quantify. Its pace is often slow and stately, in no rush to reach its destination. Like a piece of pastoral program music, High Violet is focused on taking you through a journey; painting the scope of a moment, or a feeling.
“Sorrow” isn’t just a song about being sad, it’s about the state of being trapped in sorrow, of carrying its numbness, its quiet breed of fear as a constant companion. It’s everywhere and it always has been, but the music doesn’t make you lament the fact. It’s not a melodrama. The steady tapping on the high hat never strays from its sixteenth note drive, putting you at ease in an unusual way. Because there is something strangely comforting about sadness when it’s constant.
It would not be revolutionary to suggest that The National knows how to write sad songs (just as it would’t be any real confession to say that I love me a good sad song). That’s not what makes this record special amongst every solid National LP, nor amongst the many great albums of the decade.
What always amazes me, and what keeps me coming back to High Violet time and time again, is The National’s ability to capture the different faces of sadness. What does it sound like to be stuck, filled with fear and helplessness, to be lost, to be in love with an idea or a person even when it’s destroying you? Screaming into a void for anyone to hear, “You’re the voice that’s swallowing my soul.” What does it sound like when you plant your feet and let everything inside your head out?
Then there are songs like “Lemonworld,” “Runaway” and “England,” that capture something so gentle and loving. They are understated in many ways, as many National songs can be. Matt Berninger’s effortless baritone seldom finds the need to shout, and the earnest nature of his voice plays a huge role in setting this tone. (Though, let it be stated that when he does shout, it’s gripping and jarring in all the right ways.)
There is no dead weight in this band of brothers, as they all fit in their right place. Bryan Devendorf’s drum work manages to be smart, complex and interesting while providing the heart beat of every song. The Dessner brothers and Scott Devendorf create a sonic atmosphere that is rich without being overbearing, emotive while also being reserved. As a band they have been able to capture the complexity of human emotion, which is seldom just sad or just joyful. It’s kind of a mess. And a beautiful one at that.
I’ve had the privilege of seeing The National live many times and in many different places. And I would be remiss to mot mention the final song on High Violet, arguably the most heart-string-tugging piece they’ve ever done, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.”
Often saved for their final encore song, I have heard “Vanderlyle” played acoustically and a cappella. And when I’ve found myself surrounded by a sea of other National fans, gently echoing the lyrics back to them, I find that it captures the essence of what makes High Violet so special to me.
It can be heartbreaking and cathartic if you’re feeling low, but it’s also simply beautiful, introspective and honest, as a crowd of people sway and sing together, “All the very best of us string ourselves up for love.”