by Hipster Hamster Hipster Hamster
May 17, 2010

Few bands are as consistently excellent as the National, and with High Violet the Brooklyn five-piece (and an all star roster of guest performers) continue a tradition of crafting densely layered masterpieces. The group’s latest effort is a dark, brooding titan of an indie rock record, combining dark pop sensibilities, intricate orchestral arrangements and sorrowful, contemplative atmospheres.

Lyrically, the band hasn’t lost a step. Even when he throws out a line that should be patently ridiculous (“I was afraid/that I’d eat your brains/’Cause I’m Evil”), Matt Berninger’s baritone is so strong that he manages to imbue the lyrics with a palpable sense of menace. The singer still has a knack for turning a clever phrase (“Lay me on the table / Put flowers in my mouth and we can call it a summer lovin’ torture party,” “Everything means everything,” “You can put on your bathing suit and I’ll try to find something from this thing that means nothing”), and the lyrics are uniformly excellent.

And thoroughly depressing.

Make no mistake—High Violet is a sad, sad record. Almost every track is permeated with a sense of despair, resignation or defeat, making it clear both that Berninger is tired of life’s heartbreaks and that he has accepted them as unavoidable. On the very first track, Berninger sings that “It takes an ocean not to break,” the tone of his voice conceding that he is no ocean. He goes on to insist that he “didn’t want to be anyone’s ghost,” that he doesn’t “have the drugs to sort it out,” and that “sorrow won.” Berninger has ceded defeat, admitting that he is not strong enough to overcome the obstacles in his way. Many of the songs are crushingly depressing, revealing a narrator who has not seen a victory in a long, long time. There are hints of optimism, as the album ends with Berninger proudly stating that he “won’t be a runaway” and that while “the waters are rising,” the swans are singing, and all is forgiven.

The morose lyrical themes are supported by brilliantly executed instrumentations. Fraternal duos Aaron and Bryce Dressner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf do an outstanding job, painting the perfect backdrops for Berninger’s vocals. Guitars shimmer, twist and intertwine with the bass, which roams across the register, providing as much melody as it does rhythm.  Keyboards mark haunting progression of chords and add flourishes to guitar riffs, while horns and strings underlie everything providing powerful emphasis.

And the drums—oh, the drums. Bryan Devendorf’s drum beats have never been anything but spectacular, and his work on High Violet is no different. Shying away from traditional schemes and standard rock drumming, Devendorf writes parts that are just as important and melodic as any guitar part.  His drums transform album standout (and single) “Bloodbuzz Ohio” from a slow, syrupy ballad into a churning, frantic cry for help as he pounds toms, snares, cymbals and kick drums with reckless abandon.

With High Violet, the National have written an album that is more than a worthy successor to 2007’s critically adored Boxer. High Violet is a complex, engaging record, offering plenty of motivation for repeat listening. Even now, over fifty listens in, familiar parts give me shivers, I’m surprised by new details, and I slowly decipher lyrics. Each song is meticulously crafted, with layer upon layer of detail but none of the songs feel stale or canned. High Violet is a remarkable achievement for the National, and solidifies them as one of the best bands in today’s musical world.

Go buy this album. Treat yourself.

out of 5 weasels.

Click PLAY for a 30 second free MP3 of each track or the track name for lyrics in a new tab/window

  1. Terrible Love
  2. Sorrow
  3. Anyone’s Ghost
  4. Little Faith
  5. Afraid of Everyone
  6. Bloodbuzz Ohio (FREE MP3)
  7. Lemonworld
  8. Runaway
  9. Conversation 16
  10. England
  11. Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks

Visit The National online:

“Bloodbuzz Ohio” music video

“High Violet” promo clip

Never trust a hamster. Support the artist and find out for yourself. encourages purchasing High Violet locally at Red Cat Records in Vancouver, B.C, any independent record store of your choice or online here.


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