finds The National
at a high point, poised to either find their way at last into the hearts and minds and stereos of Middle America, or to fall back—either into hipster obscurity in the bars and art galleries of Brooklyn, or hipster exile in the suburbs—and be mourned by their dedicated fans but unremembered by the public-at-large.
Ever since 2005’s Alligator
(or better yet, 2004’s Cherry Tree
EP), it’s been clear to everyone who was actually paying attention that this is a band with the ambition, and more importantly, the skills to be the Next Big Thing. And yet—and, mind you, it’s always hard to say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing—they also have the canny hipster sense that it’s unwise to look like you’re actually trying. So this album finds them both writing anthemic choruses and mumbling them, crafting sharp tunes and sludging them up, and generally continuing to be infuriatingly fascinating.
The New York Times’ recent glowing profile
of the band—one could call it a puff piece, but this is a band that deserves puffing—alluded to the general critical sense that this is a band poised to make the musical equivalent of the Great American Novel. And while that’s an accurate picture of their potential, it’s still somewhat misleading. Their previous two works were like Bukowski set to music—they’re edgy and darkly funny tales of urban alienation and angst and alcoholism, tremendously enjoyable, but still somewhat out of the mainstream. Whereas High Violet
is more like Updike, with married-with-child lead singer Matt Berninger as Rabbit Angstrom, with a little extra angst on the side. He’s settling uneasily into domesticity and starting to care about the things most people care about, but he's also trembling with fear, seeing danger around every corner. He promises us it isn’t Rabbit, Run
; “I won’t be no runaway, ‘cause I won’t run" ends up being one of the best and most memorable choruses on the album. But elsewhere there’s enough conflict and longing for oblivion that it obviously isn’t Rabbit at Rest
Again, Berninger’s observations seem more squarely aimed at the average American here than on previous works; “I still owe money to the money, to the money I owe” feels like a zeitgeist-capturing line if ever there was one, something that sounds equally apropos for Brooklyn or Brooklyn Park. And yet Berninger’s unable, unwilling, and has no need to entirely shed the jaded urbanite persona he’s revealed to us on previous albums. So all this leaves him with one foot still planted in white hipsterdom and another astride the white picket fence, and with no clear sense of whether he’s coming or going. Whereas on Boxer’s
“Slow Show,” he sang “Can I have a minute and not be nervous, and not think about my dick,” here he’s talking about how “we live on coffee and flowers, try not to wonder what the weather will be.” He mentions hoisting his kid on his shoulders and giving him ice for his fevers, but also says, “I don’t have the drugs to sort it out.” Is he out of drugs? Is he off of drugs? Abstaining for the sake of the kid, the wife, himself? Or are there simply not enough varieties and quantities of drugs to give him peace of mind in such a complicated situation? Like all the best lyricists, he’s written this in a way that it can be interpreted many ways, and mean many things to many people depending on which parts resonate with their own experiences.
Musically, the band’s as tight as ever; they always remind me of a moonlit sea, dark and energetic, deep and intense, but with bright flashes and intricate details. They’ve sludged things up a bit at the end of the somewhat Springsteen-ian “Terrible Love,” taking a page from their live act, where they’ve been doing a messy deconstruction of “About Today” as a staple closer for some time now, and “Little Faith” has wonderful low ominous strings that help make it perhaps the most brooding song they’ve ever written, which is really really saying something. Still, all in all, it’s of a piece with their previous works, which isn’t exactly a bad thing. (The album as a whole has a solid, conventional arc to it, not unlike Boxer, which isn’t bad, but isn’t perhaps as exciting as Alligator, which took the daring path of putting some of the most charging and driving songs at the end of the album, making for the musical equivalent of trying to end a relationship with face-melting post-breakup late-night rage sex.) It closes with relatively sedate songs, “England” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” which, one senses, are either the least exciting songs this band’s written in a while, or the ones that just take the most listens to let their slow brilliance sink in.
It’s perhaps fitting that they’re ending things on a mellower note; again, the overall impression is that the band’s at least making an attempt to settle down, to reverse the exodus so many of our generation made at the beginning of our twenties when we fled suburbs and responsibility, preferring the darkened streets and crowded bars of the city to any sort of domesticity. “We’ll leave the silver city, ‘cause all the silver girls gave us black dreams,” he says on “Conversation 16.” But it’s hard to tell whether he’ll succeed, or whether he wants to; the same song finds him declaring that “I’m evil,” one who wants “to believe in all the things you believe” but is nonetheless “a confident liar.” “When I said what I said, I didn’t mean anything,” Berninger tells either his wife or himself or us, which obviously leaves one wondering about the sincerity of it all. Is it just for show, something they’re doing because they think it’s what’s expected of them? Do they want to find a comfortable place in Middle America? Do we want them to? “I’ll explain everything to the geeks,” Berninger promises, but since it’s the last line on the album, he doesn’t; the questions remain unanswered, the tension, unresolved. But that tension is what brings us back to their albums again and again, and hearing new things each time; it’s not answers, but the search for answers, that makes this band compelling.