Wednesday, September 29, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘High Violet,’ The National (2010)

On “High Violet,” it’s like The National made a list of all the stereotypical criticisms people lay on them … and then decided to make an entire album based exactly on those.

This is mopey, claustrophobic, tortured, black-soul melodrama of the worst kind. It’s easily The National’s worst album.

On its own, a singsong-y track like “Anyone’s Ghost” isn’t so bad; it reminds me of “Karen” from 2005’s “Alligator.” Thing is, “Karen” was surrounded by “Secret Meeting” and “Lit Up,” two firebrand songs that buoy a weaker track like “Karen” out of sheer proximity. “Ghost,” on the other hand, is bookended by two more dirges—“Sorrow” and “Little Faith”—that don’t look an inch above the tops of their shoes. Listening to the first half of this CD is like wading through waist-deep mud.

The National are usually good for solid, catchy melodies I find myself humming without even thinking about it. There’s a sore lack of that here. “Afraid of Everyone” just meanders around trying to be “Mistaken for Strangers,” while the interminable “Runaway” is so monotonous, on one of my first listens I thought the song had restarted accidentally—nope, it was only half over.

“Bloodbuzz Ohio” is the best song of the album, and the only one that can hold its own against the band’s best work. It’s also a mere gasp for breath before “High Violet” plunges back down to the depths of sonic suffocation, where it goes to drown.

I like frontman Matt Berninger’s perspective on lyrics: He doesn’t like to talk about his intentions for songs, preferring to leave it entirely up to the listener. He likes to play with words and language, painting with them as much as writing; combined with his unmistakable thrumming voice, the effect is usually mesmerizing. But on “High Violet” much of his work is so overwrought and awful it’s almost self-parody. “You and your sister live in a Lemonworld I want to sit in and die” he moans on “Lemonworld”; on “Terrible Love” he mumbles over and over: “It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders”; and the worst, on “Conversation 16”: “I was afraid I’d eat your brains/’Cause I’m evil.” Oh, good grief.

In a big article for The New York Times this spring, the band talked about how difficult the recording sessions were this time around, how the songs continued to change, oftentimes dramatically so. I think the pressure to follow a modern classic like 2007’s “Boxer” became too heavy, and they choked the life out of most of these songs (U2’s “Pop,” anyone?). In the press release for the album Berninger says the band experiments with “ugly tones.” Yep, that’s about right. It’s painful listening at nearly every turn.

I still love The National, but I hate “High Violet.” What a stunning disappointment.

Grade: D-

Favorite Track: “Bloodbuzz Ohio”

Least Favorite Track: Pick one

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