While watching The National at one of ATP’s 2008 festivals in Minehead, UK, I was left confused. How can a band this good, this radio friendly, this professional not be bigger? Why is it that the likes of Muse, Radiohead and Coldplay play in front of multi-zillion seater stadiums and headline major festivals, yet I’m watching The National in the atrium of a Butlins holiday camp in Somerset?
Back then their incredible album Boxer had been out for only a few months, featuring some sublime tracks such as ‘Mistaken for Strangers’ and ‘Fake Empire’ that sounded as incredible live at that ATP gig as they did on the album.
Now two years on they are back with High Violet, a far more downbeat affair than Boxer. But despite the lack of immediate impact it carries with it a greater sense of subtlety, of mood and emotion, that rewards those who are familiar with the word ‘grower’.
The heartbeat like drumming on opener ‘Terrible Love’, has less melody than Boxer opener ‘Fake Empire’ but is more hypnotic and draws the listener nicely in to the rest of the album.
‘Sorrow’ feels lighter, even breezy after a few listens, ironic given the title. It is also the first goosebump moment on the album caused by Matt Berninger’s distinctive, broody baritone.
While there’s no immediate standout ‘Anyone’s Ghost’ comes pretty close and Bloodbuzz Ohio is another fine track. It’s no surprise that this latter track is the one The National’s label 4AD have been pushing hard in promotional activity.
The track England’ is also among the best. A slow build up, like a boat soaring to the Dover coast, presumably all the way to the burger stalls of Butlins, rather the 02 Arena or Wembley VIP lounge.
In one respect High Violet is an improvement on Boxer. While Boxer started off in stunning fashion it became a little pedestrian by the end. In contrast High Violet is more consistent throughout, asking the listener to take more time.
The bass and snare coming in on ‘Afraid of Everyone’ is a case in point and apart from
Berninger’s vocals is as near as it gets to defining The National’s sound.
I still wonder why The National aren’t bigger. Seems perfect for a headline show to me at Glastonbury, better than the likes of Coldplay and Muse by a mile. I for one will be getting my giant flag and lighter out for tracks like ‘Runaway’, even if its at a smaller venue, for now at least.
Joe Lepper, May 2010