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The National
High Violet Alex Denney , May 12th, 2010 13:53

Empathy isn't a virtue readily associated with rock's emotionally-charged climes, trafficking as they usually do in excess and ego-driven chicanery of every description. The National honed their art to a supremely nuanced stadium rock over the course of four albums culminating in 2007's fantastic Boxer, tilling the poorly nourished soil of modern urban existence to unearth tales of weary self-forgetting, ideals run aground and those bone-chilling moments where the mask of autonomy slips and we see ourselves as we really are in the technocratic, ontologically-unsound west: frightened and alone. Theirs was a world of compromise; a bitter coffee ground comprised of telling defeats and the dreams that linger on, strange and small and sexy as week-old cologne. And if all that sounds like a tough sell, then frontman Matt Berninger's dry-as-dust humour and suave baritone went a long way to sugaring the pill.

High Violet comes loaded with twin significance as the record that's being tipped to bring the kind of mainstream acceptance the band have flirted with for a few years now, but also as a set which will need to work very hard indeed to topple what many felt to be their crowning achievement in Boxer. The latter's triumph was to pull taut the geometric lines which had increasingly come to define their sound, a feat accomplished in part by the beautifully stylised, almost counter-intuitive drumming of Bryan Devendorf, and the expertly woven orchestral threads of Clogs' Padma Newsome.

Perhaps sensing that Boxer's slightly austere elegance would do little to foster larger-scale success, the band here favour the sort of rougher edged, more directly appealing tack evidenced in 'Terrible Love', which moves from a slow, major-chord procession into a deluge of in-rushing drums with almost careless abandon. But The National are smarter than that, and in fact the percussion gives the track certain, contrapuntal finesse, even if it lacks a sufficiently melodic hook to make this a deal-breaker on the new sound.

'Anyone's Ghost' better illustrates the newfound directness of approach; the band pouring themselves into ever-poppier spaces with surprising ease, while a tuneful vocal and thwackingly good drum figure gives more than a whiff of latter-day Arctic Monkeys. This might not be a reference that everyone will thrill to, but you know - it works. Meanwhile 'Afraid of Everyone' serves up just a thin acoustic backing and sliver of nervy lead as Berninger cuts to the quick in a surprisingly vulnerable tenor that "I'm afraid of everyone". It's a refreshing lyric that pulls the global-village sentiment of the stadium-rocking clique inside out. Here, Berninger establishes a very different kind of contract with the world, one where good things happen not by woolly transcendence but by effortful design: “With my kid on my shoulders I try / Not to hurt anybody I like”.

'Sorrow' is the aural equivalent of goosebumps, like a ruminative Bad Seeds shot in expensive black-and-white. It's a terrific, sly doff of the cap to those of a melancholy temperament (“sorrow's my body on the waves / sorrow's a girl inside my cake”), nodding in the direction of that artful moper par excellence Stephen Merritt with the refrain "I don't wanna get over you". Elsewhere and 'Bloodbuzz Ohio' is a kicky, old-skool surge that comes on like a white-collar echo of Born To Run-era Springsteen. Hardly a stretch, in truth, but convincingly driven by one of Devendorf's signature, cyclical beats, giving oblique thrust to what might otherwise seem a rather straight-laced bit of anthemry.

A highlight arrives in 'Runaway''s fine, faintly tidal-sounding ballad which finds Berninger pledging to steady the ship of a rocking relationship in which "another thing's coming undone". It's interesting to note that the orchestration here smoothly echoes the song's progression - if it had turned up on Boxer, we might have expected something altogether more strange and off-kilter. This seems pertinent: at times the instrumentation on High Violet is sympathetic almost to the point of invisibility, placing greater weight on the melodies, a trick which causes bother when tracks like 'Conversation 16' fail to catch fire. But here their judgment is shrewd - they give the track exactly just what it needs, and 'Runaway' stands up beautifully.

'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geek''s torch song closer strikes the sort of broadly redemptive note Berninger might not have reached for the past, and gets it only half right. The central refrain "all the very best of us string ourselves up for love", works as the sort of generous pay-off the younger, more inward-facing National might have fought shy of, but it also sounds a bit too much like Elbow for its own good. In the end, though, it's a minor complaint. On The National's fifth album the band's aim is true; its vision unflinching yet more inclusive, more alive to the possibility of meaningful escape. "It takes an ocean not to break," sings Berninger on 'Terrible Love', sounding less like a self-absorbed complaint rocker than one who knows that plain holding your shit together is sometimes the most heroic thing you can do.High Violet, for all its occasional faults, holds its shit together admirably.