If there is one band that has steadfastly stuck to its indie-ness, despite huge success and critical acclaim, it is The National. Till last week, the Brooklyn-based band of some 10 years or so had four full-length albums out, two of them – Alligator and Boxer – catapulting them to popularity (make that popularity in indie terms and not multi-platinum sales).
Yet, the band and its broody, baritone frontman, Matt Berninger, have shunned the perks that fame in the world of rock can bring you. The band is still studiously low key and, as their new album, High Violet, which came out on May 10, demonstrates, it still makes delectably melancholic music that anyone can instantly relate to.
Anyone, that is, who likes that sort of thing. If you’ve heard and liked any of The National’s earlier albums, particularly the two that I just mentioned, you will not be disappointed by High Violet. If you liked Alligator’s (2005) brooding love song, Karen, or Boxer’s (2007) cynical Squalor Victoria and if you’ve heard and re-heard their albums, preferably alone in a dark room with a drink or two or three, High Violet is for you.
High Violet is darker and more inward looking than Boxer or Alligator. It also marks The National’s evolution to a higher, and perhaps more mature level.
The National’s music is not about lyrics alone. In fact, some of their lyrics, taken out of context of the music and the vocal style of Berninger’s would seem meaningless, trite even. It is the entire package that the band delivers. There is a vulnerability of his voice, sometimes droll and deadpan, at others pain-laden or just sadly wise that trademarks their music, as does the casual and not the least bit over-wrought guitars, drums and the never too-overboard orchestral arrangements.
Typically, an album from The National sinks in over a few listens, although the first time you spin it, you are likely to get hooked. If, of course, the oeuvre that usually does it for you is not black metal or other headbanger’s fare.
But, like their earlier albums, High Violet is not a weepy record. The sadness in their songs is tinged with a sardonic note, a dry smile that gives them their appeal. That tinge of wryness, I suspect, stems from Berninger’s own personality. I read some-where that in an interview late last year he had said that the band had started out to make a fun pop record and that he had even taped the word HAPPINESS to the wall but that the band had instant-ly strayed off that track.
I’ve raved about The National in this column before but I’ve even had skeptics who usually dis-miss such music listen to their songs and become converts. On the new album, The National have guests, indie music stars Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, while the band still comprises, somewhat uniquely, two pairs of brothers besides vocalist Berninger: Bryan (drums) and Scott (bass) Devendorf and Bryce (guitar) and Aaron (piano, bass and guitar) Dessner.
I like every song by The National that I have heard, including the 11 on High Violet. But then, I’m sure if you’ve read till here you have realised how biased I am. Even so, if you ask me to choose the one song that I like best on their new album, it will have to be Sorrow. Here, sample a few lines from it:
Sorrow found me when I was young
Sorrow waited, sorrow won
Sorrow they put me on the pill
It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk
Don’t leave my hyper heart alone on the water
Cover me in rag and bone sympathy
’Cos I don’t wanna get over you
I don’t wanna get over you
Sorrow’s my body on the waves
Sorrow’s a girl inside my cake
I live in a city sorrow built
It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk.
Only The National can pull a song off like that.
Three To Tango
- Die By the Drop: A track from The Dead Weather’s new album, Sea of Cowards. The Dead Weather is Jack White’s new project.
- Great New Blues: An episode from The Roadhouse podcast that showcases many new blues artists.
- The Fader: It’s the hip and edgy music magazine cover-ing music, culture and fashion with a skew toward hip-hop and reggae. Download it here free.