the national – high violet

The National High Violet.jpg

i can count on one, maybe two, hands the number of records i listen to just as much now as i did five years ago.  many people undoubtedly find themselves in a similar situation for a variety of reasons, but i’m a highly impressionable person at an equally impressionable age, so it follows that a large portion of my musical diet would be substantially different at the age of twenty-three than at the age of eighteen.

for instance, i now see the incredible merit and social relevance of rap music and appreciate the muted refinement of ambient artists, while i tire quickly of acts like the black keys and muse that once structured such integral components of my musical identity.  although there are many albums i revisit frequently with general fondness, only a select few have consistently remained in heavy rotation for a half-decade.

the national released high violet on may 10th, 2010, just a few weeks before i graduated high school.  already industry veterans, the national had recently experienced two successive strokes of good fortune: the critical acclaim of 2007’s boxer and their label’s subsequent merger with 4ad.  a larger label means a bigger press cycle, which is inevitably how i was introduced to their fifth album.

i’m still not sure what initially drew me to the national, but i have a feeling it was largely due to familiarity and comfort.  familiarity in the sense that matt berninger’s voice was lower, more in line with my own, and comforting in the sense that he could be so emotive within the confines of a limited vocal range, a shared affliction that i had previously thought impossible to overcome.  then there was the fact that the national’s overarching demeanor was a little bit downcast and glum, which immediately reflected the lingering bits of sadness and self-doubt i was starting to feel over closing a huge chapter in my life and beginning a new one from scratch.

over the course of the ensuing summer, high violet took a backseat to more upbeat records conducive to late-night drives and sunny afternoon beach outings, but it held a special place for those slower moments, ones where i had extended time periods to myself and access to headphones.  the tremolo guitar chords that open “terrible love” were immediately soothing, a guiding force that eased me into a sense of melancholy and reflection.  throughout the following year i gradually absorbed the album and turned to its predecessors, boxer and alligator, for points of reference, but i always felt particularly drawn to high violet, to its effortless interchange of brass and strings as harmonic support, to berninger’s narratives and reflections, to the dessner brothers’ triumphantly symphonic compositions.

when played in full, high violet ebbs and flows with confidence. “bloodbuzz ohio” is the centerpiece of the album, both sequentially and structurally: the first five tracks build slowly towards it, each one offering a single trait that would eventually be absorbed into “bloodbuzz.”  specifically, the drumming in “anyone’s ghost,” the gradual wall of sound in “little faith,” and the orchestration in “afraid of everyone” all compound on one another to the point that the subsequent arrival of “bloodbuzz ohio” feels completely natural, as if nothing else could possibly follow.

the back half of high violet details the comedown from the exuberance of “bloodbuzz”; appropriately, it’s nearly a mirror image of the front, with elements being continuously subtracted until the arrival of “vanderlyle crybaby geeks,” a finale with similar gang vocals and string arrangements to that of the opener, “terrible love.”

symmetry aside, i constantly found other aspects of high violet to hold close.  the penultimate cut, “england,” was especially relevant in the first few months of 2012; berninger’s personification of an emotion throughout “sorrow” was a strong point of reference when i started to take poetry a bit more seriously; bryan devendorf’s blatant disregard for rock drumming conventions forced me to re-examine the rhythmic constructs and possibilities of every song that i wrote.  it seemed that every few months for the first three years that i owned this album, i would find something new to obsess about and pour over within high violet.

by the time i reached my senior year of college in the fall of 2013, the national had released their follow-up effort trouble will find me, and while i loved the album and cherished its place within the band’s chronology of development, a sliver of disappointment overcame me as i realized that they would never again offer up something that flowed as organically – and with such volatility – as high violet.

individual songs on the album had, by that time, largely ceased to function as emotional triggers for me, but it still remained on my iphone in its entirety and it frequently soundtracked my long walks to and from classes and around town.  particularly, high violet felt appropriate against the desolate backdrop of cripplingly cold and long wisconsin winters, reflecting the underlying misery while offering a degree of warmth akin to freshly-swallowed whiskey.

as i sat down to revisit high violet in depth for the umpteenth time in order to write this column, i’ll admit that i saw the telltale signs of an album that’s beginning to wear on me.  moments that once felt mesmerizing now had a slightly stale taste; some of the symphonic arrangements now feel derivative, unnecessarily grandiose.  still, i distinctly remembered my heart being beleaguered by the usual suspects, i still found something new to admire and dissect in bryan devendorf’s drumming, and i still laughed at the comically morose zombie references stashed in “conversation 16.”  high violet might not be an album that will hold a permanent slot on my portable media device five years from now, but its influence is paramount; i’ll always save a special place for those eleven tracks.