Music Reviews
High Violet

The National High Violet

(4AD) Rating - 9/10

I didn’t connect with The National’s 2007 breakthrough Boxer at the first time of asking. It wasn’t until I revisited the album after its strong showing in our Top 50 Albums of 2007 feature that I began to understand what a landmark achievement it was. Listening to Boxer now, as I still do on pretty much a monthly basis, I’m struck by how expertly judged it all is. Not one riff or individual part feels overdone; there is always just enough room for Matt Berninger’s husky baritone to reverberate in the space between instruments. The sequencing job is perfect and not a single song outstays its welcome or takes an ill-advised sonic turn. It’s a confident band that knows exactly when to stop adding to a track in the studio; it’s a truly inspired band that calls it right twelve times in a row. Boxer is the sound of five musicians perfectly tuned in to one another. It’s a near-perfect album, a solid 10/10, and one of the finest works of the last decade. 

High Violet is none of these things, but that’s not to say it isn’t a fantastic record in its own right. The only disappointed fans will be those desperate for a facsimile of Boxer.

I’ve lived with High Violet for nearly three months now and like its illustrious predecessor the album has taken its time to win me over. Initially, the sequencing bugged me. I had been seduced by the vibrant energy of lead single Bloodbuzz Ohio - for my money, still the strongest and most immediate of the eleven songs here - and I couldn’t understand why it was buried in the middle of the album at track six. Twenty or thirty listens later, I can’t for the life of me see why I considered this a problem - it’s an ideal centrepiece. 

Like Boxer’s Racing Like A Pro and Start A War, slow-burners Runaway and Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks began to reveal their charms over time, but the biggest reward for my patience was Conversation 16. Embarrassingly, an early draft of this review cited the track as a buzz-killer; over the course of the week, however, a frenzy of repeat plays have transformed it into an unequivocal standout in my eyes. I’d go as far to say that the subtle shift in rhythm at 1:49 is High Violet’s finest moment. Some bands need to jump onto distortion pedals to announce the arrival of a bridge or chorus; one of The National’s overriding strengths is their ability to recreate this kind of impact with the deftest of drum fills and some ambient guitar atmospherics. I think this understated approach is what makes their work so easy to write off at first; the payoffs aren’t as obviously signposted as on most indie-rock records so they’re actually quite easy to miss, especially if you’re not paying full attention.

The only song that doesn’t hit the mark is Anyone’s Ghost. A languid rocker with a typically precise rhythm, it pitches for atmospheric but comes off unfinished and even a little, dare I say, pedestrian. Mercifully, it’s the album’s shortest song and it doesn’t disrupt the momentum too much, but I can’t help but think that High Violet would have been a tighter, stronger record without it. This is really a minor quibble, though, and The National’s latest is easily up there with the very best indie-rock records of the year.