What does it sound like?:
2010 was a key year for The National. Their fanbase had been steadily increasing and their previous album, Boxer, had seen their profile rise considerably, helped along of course by the Obama campaign’s use of Fake Empire. This next album was crucial. It could consolidate their success and launch them onwards to the next level and the next and the next after that, the big font at the top of a festival listing and high profile album launch events, or it could misfire and see them consigned to the almost but not quite made it ranks of a thousand other indie bands.
You get the sense the band knew that. This feels like an album that has been laboured over. I don’t mean it’s tired and weary, more that it’s been pored over and crafted by people who have done their apprenticeship and are ready to show what they can do. The songs feel polished and strong, but it’s an album that lives on its arrangements. There are so many touches like the woodwind playing off the riff on Afraid Of Everyone, the strings on Little Faith, or the brass on Runaway that elevate the material and give it depth (this would be a good time to mention Bryan Devendorf’s constantly unusual and inventive drum patterns). It’s a nuanced and subtle record, one that reveals its charms slowly and takes a while to seep under your skin, but once it’s there it’s there for good. The lyrics are firmly in the National territory of chronicling male midlife issues, of trying to navigate the quotidian. So far, so Elbow, but Matt Berninger’s words have an opacity, a literary, sardonic quality, that band lack, which perversely makes them more memorable. I don’t know what a bloodbuzz is or why I would be carried to Ohio on a swarm of bees, but damn it sounds good, doesn’t it?
So yeah, High Violet is a triumph, and we all know what happened next for the band. But what about the extras on this tenth anniversary reissue? Firstly, a small grumble about what we didn’t get. The final track, the beautiful swelling tender anthem Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, has become their perennial show closer, largely sung back at the band by the audience. It’s a special moment in any National concert, and it’s a shame that room couldn’t be found among the live tracks here for a recording of one. The tracks that have made the cut are the same as appeared on the 2CD version of the album a few years back, appearing for the first time on LP (and, it must be said, it looks like a lovely piece of vinyl, with mixed white and violet discs). So we get a (really quite different) alternate version of opener Terrible Love, four studio tracks that I presume were recorded as part of the album sessions, and a smattering of live recordings (not the legendary six hour performance of 105 consecutive playthroughs of Sorrow though – you’ll have to go elsewhere for that. You do get a lovely skeletal piano and trumpet take on Bloodbuzz Ohio (live from The Current) though. You can hear why the studio tracks didn’t make it to the album – it’s not that they are some of nature’s B-sides, more that they don’t fit the mood of the record. Wake Up Your Saints in particular might be the jauntiest song the band have ever recorded. It’s almost a knees up.
The National are one of the best bands we have now, and this is one of their best records, reissued in a lovely looking package. What’s not to like?
What does it all *mean*?
ten years can go by awfully quick
Goes well with…
Introspection, headphones, late nights, a vague sense of unease and feeling adrift.
Might suit people who like…
things that grow slowly but deeply