The National - In Advance: High Violet

Keiran Goddard 27/04/2010

By all accounts The National had hoped to create a more immediate, poppier, less morose record than we have come to expect from them. By this measure, 'High Violet' is ostensibly a failure. On the other hand, they have managed to make one of the most beautiful, desperate, frustrated and delicate albums I have heard, since, well, 'Boxer'. No small compensation.

Without question the triptych of 'Alligator', 'Boxer' and now, 'High Viole't represent one of the most consistently brilliant and moving release runs of the last decade or so. Just in case it was ever in question, this record is renewed confirmation that The National are a very very special proposition indeed; carving out a position alongside Joy Division, 'Nebraska' era Bruce Springsteen, Blue Nile and REM whilst yoking those suburban sensibilities to a broader (arguably neo-classical) backdrop- we are witnessing a genuinely great band at the peak of their powers.

All of the staple elements remain largely untouched here; the resigned baritone, drumming which veers from classic rock propulsion to avante-influenced rhythmic patterning, intricate melodic interplay and arrangements restrained enough to lend almost every track a coiled sense of yet-to-be-uttered despair; this is much more a record of reconciliation, perhaps refinement, but not (as has been suggested in some quarters) one of revolution and redesign. That is not to say there aren't some immediate differences in evidence. The record is more densely textured than previous outings, there is often a foreboding throb where we may once expected the clean chime of interlocking guitars. The result of this is a reduction in dynamism, the trade off being that the new songs have a stately and surefooted backbone that is always effective and, at times, jaw-droppingly impressive.

Take for example, 'Sorrow'. The track opens with the plaintive histrionics of ' sorrow found me when I was young, sorrow found me and sorrow won'. Now, for a band so firmly rooted in the ashtray and hangover melancholy of Raymond Carver and Wells Tower, this is a risky move. It is nowhere near arch enough to acknowledge how close it veers to self parody, and yet it is a risk that pays off spectacularly, an opening gambit that sets up three and a half minutes of voyeurism and recognition that is as uncomfortable as it is devastating. It works because it is clear-eyed, because there is a vicious force of intent and revelation, because all of the sonic and melodic restraint of music and voice is torn open by the utterly relentless honesty of the lyrics. By the time the reticent and apologetic backing vocal comes, it is clear which side has won, there is no choice but to echo the sentiment on show...it is the sound of someone being won over, someone giving in and singing along tentatively; they were lying, or drinking, probably both; but now they admit it, they've made the wrong choices, this isn't how things were meant to be.

High Violet is a triumphant record without a single second of triumphalism. It is full of heroic restraint, the sound of someone trying not to cry as they leave, the quiet and trembling dignity of a last goodbye that is not aware of its own status. By any standards this is an album of rare, singular quality, it would be jewel in the crown of lesser bands; for The National it is further confirmation that they are amongst the very finest we have.

The National release 'High Violet' through 4AD on the 10th of May.


The National will play a one-off show London's Royal Albert Hall on May 6th. Preceeding that they will play a low-key set at the Electric Ballroom in Camden on May 5th. Tickets for both dates sold out immediately.