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Album review: The National, "High Violet"

By Allison Stewart

Brooklyn band the National has been overpraised and under-famous since the release of 2007's "Boxer," which did well enough to suggest a move from underground stardom to the actual kind was there for the asking. If their placeholder of a new disc, "High Violet," is any indication, the National is content to stay where it is.

"Boxer" was depressive and baroque, informed by the back catalogues of shoe gazers and sad-sack Brits like Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen. "High Violet" is less of the same. It dials down its predecessor's charms, dispenses with most of its hooks and build-and-release tension, and, lest you think the National was tempted by that whole indie superstardom business, rubs the whole thing with a thick coating of fuzz.

"Bloodbuzz Ohio" - The National

(Charms that reveal themselves over time, after the jump.)

It's methodical and smart, filled with inscrutable but deep-sounding ruminations on love and loss. Its twisty, intricate rhythms and lush orchestral passages would take lesser bands years to figure out. It's carefully made and entirely admirable -- and very, very dull, like an Arcade Fire album where nothing happens.

Like most National discs, its charms gradually reveal themselves over repeated listenings, although it might just be the Stockholm syndrome kicking in. How much you like the National depends on how much you're determined to like the National, a band that seems to delight in making it difficult. "High Violet" starts off almost lively but buckles under the weight of its deadeningly paced second half, enlivened only by the late-inning charmer "Conversation 16," which sounds like the theme music to a horror film starring the Cocteau Twins.

"I was afraid I'd eat your brains/'cause I'm evil," sings frontman Matt Berninger, though he doesn't sound evil at all, just enervated. By that point, you'll know just how he feels.

The National plays DAR Constitution Hall on June 6.

Recommended tracks: "Conversation 16," "Bloodbuzz Ohio"

By David Malitz  |  May 11, 2010; 9:15 AM ET
Categories:  Quick spins  | Tags: The National  
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Next: Album review: Elizabeth Cook, "Welder"


The National boring? bland? worst indie band? just a drummer? Or best album of the summer? Who has listened to #highviolet ? Here Is... What We Talk About When We Talk About the National...

Posted by: daniellannon | May 11, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Ah, the Post. Where fun and relevance regarding anything went to die. Seriously. Who thinks Boxer was bad?

Posted by: executivethunder | May 15, 2010 11:41 PM | Report abuse

Stewart writes: "How much you like the National depends on how much you're determined to like the National..." But, having written that HV's "charms gradually reveal themselves over repeated listenings, although it might just be the Stockholm syndrome kicking in"...she sort of outs herself as someone about whom it could be said: "How much you dislike the National depends on how determined you are to dislike the National." Stewart, in the manner of the signaling scenester critic, seems pretty determined, but she should be more careful about the other things she's signaling, lest people infer that she made up her mind about an album before she heard it.

Posted by: Felspar | May 16, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

i really couldn't disagree more with this review. "high violet" gives the listener the chance to do something they seldom get to do... hear a band that's been on the cusp of nailing down their own unique sound finally knock it out of the park.

i'm not sure how stewart can argue the album has no hooks... has no build & release. song after song, "high violet" plods forward in that national-esque ambling way... takes a pause, sits a spell, & picks it back up. the hooks are there, hidden for you to find in the very orchestral passages stewart seems to be using as a back-handed compliment to the band.

as for berninger singing the line "'cause i'm evil" without sounding evil... he actually does it in this faux-uplifting voice that's resigned... even wistful. what's more evil than being resigned to being evil?

and the shining moment of this wonderfully & purposefully broken-down album? second to last track, "england." it's gut-wrenching, understated, visceral, determined, & ultimately defeated. the national doing what the national does oh so very, very well.

Posted by: sgtpepper8 | May 17, 2010 8:21 AM | Report abuse

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