Last week, a friend whose musical taste I have a great deal of respect for asked me a question: Why does everybody like The National so much? It is an important question, I think, and one that I’d tried to answer a few months earlier when the band first dropped “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” the first proper single from their new album, High Violet. The best I’ve ever been able to come up with is that everybody likes the National because no one dislikes the National. Since there’s nothing even close to objectionable about them, and because they’ve got more than enough credibility to get you by in almost any situation, they’re perhaps the band most likely to be played at whatever party, bar or even restaurant you’re at—and as a result, their albums are given an unusual amount of opportunities to grow on you.
What makes them a band that is very much worth celebrating rather than resenting—for being, say, pushers of bland, middling, NPR-approved indie rock, which is how they can come off at first—is that they do start to grow on you, and they never really stop. Melodies that at first seemed forgettable, or barely even there, begin to stand out. The vocals, which at first are so easy to ignore because of how often they’re obscured almost beyond recognition by layers of guitars and keyboards, eventually break through the mix, line by line, until you realize you’re listening to one of indie-rock’s three or four best lyricists in Matt Berninger. Almost more than the lyrics themselves, of course, it’s the delivery: Berninger has perfected the exhausted tone of the deeply troubled young smart person who can’t figure out if he should be crying or laughing and thus chooses to do both, at the same time, while drinking heavily.
In a musical climate where so much is made of the very earliest material a band records, The National has been honing their sound—or their ability to translate a very specific mood into a sound—for over a decade now, and it seems safe to say they’ve perfected it on High Violet. It’s the grandest sounding record they’ve ever made: the arrangements are a touch more elaborate and far more dramatic, less willing to be relegated to background music, even at first. “Terrible Love”—which the band debuted, to the internet’s great delight, two months ago on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon—is an instant classic, a perfect, slow building, increasingly noisy introduction to the
rest of the album. “Sorrow” is upbeat, despite its considerably downtrodden lyircs—”Sorrow found me when I was young/Sorrow waited, sorrow won”&emdash;as is “Afraid of Everyone,” with its refrain of “I’m afraid of everyone, and I don’t have the drugs to sort it out.” Berninger’s most impressive quality as a frontman, of course, is his ability to sing lines like this without making you want to kick his ass.
On the whole, High Violet is a good deal harder edged than Boxer, if not quite as rowdy as Alligator or Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. One of the most enjoyable new developments is that the band’s figured out how to incorporate noisy elements without going full-on screamy or relying on the tired quiet-loud thing. In general, things just sound a little crunchier, a little more menacing, like the bass on the relatively subdued “Little Faith” or the hard-thumping floor-tom and the slightly broken-up guitar on “Lemonworld.” One imagines it’s the type of development that could stand to shorten that initial warming period. Things slow down by the end of the album, with “Runaway,” “England” and the beautiful, album-closing “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” but the sense of urgency (about feeling no urgency) remains throughout. It feels like The National really accomplished something with this album, and it’s not clear to me that they need to make another record quite like it. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, though. For now, just enjoy the record you’ll hear at every bar you step into for the next 12 months, and the record you’ll find yourself humming on every drunk walk home.