Last year, The National released "So Far Around The Bend" on the Dark Was The Night compilation; they stated it was a one-off, a musical direction they wouldn't be pursuing any further. With its elaborate Nico Muhly arrangement and jaunty, near-syncopated bass-line, it's by far the cheeriest song they've ever released, flute solo and all. The lyrics firmly sketch out what being moderately successful but constantly depressed in New York feels like; the key chorus line is "Now there's no leaving New York." The song isn't pulling the old trick of juxtaposing something appalling with incongruously peppy music; instead, what it suggests is that getting pumped about your dejection means you're doing it right and are not alone. The National make depression fun. Their shows are the opposite of the pin-drop reverential silence Tindersticks command, with an audience primed for — as Matt Berninger sings on High Violet — the "summer lovin' torture party."
With the exception of their debut album and about half of The Virginia EP, The National have never released an inessential album: they're capable of pretty much everything but happiness. After sublimating the occasional screaming fits of Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers and Alligator into the coiled restraint of Boxer, something had to give. The result is High Violet — their fourth album that's inscrutable the first time you hear it and grows more insidious with every listen.
Tonally, the closest antecedent is the Cherry Tree EP: the stalker-ish "All Dolled-Up In Straps" and brooding "Cherry Tree" are among their most dramatic material but don't even begin to prepare you for the sonic mess here. The difference this time is that the songs aren't concealing their hands the way The National normally do; this is full-blooded maximalism, to an extent that's disconcerting. When they played opener "Terrible Love" on "Late Night With Jimmy Kimmel," they appeared to have taken a page from the U2 playback; the guitars had The Edge written over them, and it seemed way over-the-top. On record, though, those guitars are more of an obfustactory squall than anthemic propellers. "It's a terrible love and I'm walking with spiders," Berninger repeats — a hell of an opener, and an announcement that the oft-elliptical-but-basically-clear lyrics of The National have finally reached a divide in which very straightforward, potentially embarrassing statements alternate with blatant nonsense. Berninger's coining words like crazy now: "Bloodbuzz," "Lemonworld," "Vanderlyle." It suits him.
So The National aren't interested in repeating themselves. Hence it's a schizoid record, split in half, a journey from confusion to clarity. If it were an LP, the break would come after the reasonably straightforward "Bloodbuzz Ohio"; the weird but clean guitar tone that opens "Lemonworld" (which, god bless them, features something that might quite possibly be a bandoleon) announces we've made it out of the haze. The mix gets a lot less overwhelmed at that point.
The two densest songs are "Terrible Love" and "Little Faith," both of which might give you pause the first time you hear them. If you were already inclined to dislike The National, you might uncharitably deem them "florid." With its swirling cello, minor keys and muttered depression ("Now I'm stuck in New York and the rain's coming down"), it's lushly dark. One of The National's traditionally-blue-blood-named women is present, of course: "Don't be bitter Anna, I know how you think." (Would that be the first album's "Anna Freud" perhaps? But related to Karen and Ada all the same.) The capper to that is a rare straightforward rhyme: "You're waiting for Radio City to sink." The city's drowning.
Water's everywhere on this record: "you must be loving your life in the rain," Berninger tells what I take to be an absent lover on "England." The opposite of water (both bodies of and/or precipitation) is The City — assuredly New York. It's strange to think of this as a "summer record": it's not breezy, or dancy, or celebratory, or any of those other things we associate with sunny jams. But it's an honest reflection of what it feels like to slog through an NYC summer at its worst.
Though some misguided types would have you believe The National are just dressed-up blank rock or Nebraska brooders (the fact that they covered Springsteen confirms some people's worst suspicions), on High Violet the band sounds slightly less sui generis and mildly more attentive to outside influences. Two in particular stand out. One's a certain strain of Copland-esque Americana, where the held notes of horns or woodwinds conveys the infinite promise of a wide open prairie etc. etc. You hear it all over the album, most notably in the horn bursts and undertones of "England." And though Boxer had a lot of arrangements, High Violet always flirts with excess: at times it seems the band is not so much playing with an orchestra as that an orchestra has The National playing alongside. (The "worst" track — there's no true bummers — is "The Runaway," if only for the simple reason that the live radio version that I lived off of for a year is already perfect in its simplicity; the cello on the album version is fine but unnecessary, and Berninger's vocals are inexplicably slightly more restrained.)
The other influence, oddly enough, appears to be the lovely British band Doves, or at least someone like them: the strings of "Little Faith" vaguely resemble the strings (and, more importantly, atmosphere) of "The Man Who Told Everything," while the ethereal "Conversation 16" — with its major chords, back-up singers and vaguely electronic feel — floats like the band at their most stripped-down.
What else? There's the usual depressed zingers, more than you can handle ("Keep my head in the oven so you'd know where to find me" on "Conversation 16" is a particularly good one), and some of the non sequiturs hit the mark with Malkmus-esque accuracy ("We'll play nuns versus priests until somebody cries" on "Little Faith"). There are looped outro vocals, suggesting someone in the band's been listening to Animal Collective. There's "England," which sums up the depressing suspicion that someone you love is having sex with strangers in a foreign country better than anything I've heard. There's humidity, despair and — ultimately — the suggestion that the best rocking comes when you're too depressed to focus on anything else. The National may be the best band in America right now.