High Violet, the fifth full album by The National, is released on 4AD on May 10th. It was the first to be recorded at the band’s own studio in Brooklyn, with mixing taking place at Tarquin Studios in Bridgeport, Connecticut with Peter Katis. It’s an astonishingly powerful record, sometimes cathartic and sometimes unresolved, sometimes raw and sometimes reflective, which reveals deeper musical hues and lyrical riches upon every listen. Brilliant and shadowy it feels like The National’s best yet.
Pulses and impulses seem to pull against each other but somehow create a balance of tension throughout, as Matt Berninger notes. “Oddly, though this album is catchier and more fun than our other records, it's also a lot bleaker in its ideas and themes. We started out trying to make a light and happy record, but it just didn't happen."
Everything’s relative. Formed in 1999, the Ohio-raised, Brooklyn-based band consists of vocalist Matt Berninger plus two pairs of brothers: Aaron Dessner (guitar, bass, piano) and Bryce Dessner (guitar), and Scott Devendorf (bass, guitar) and Bryan Devendorf (drums). Early albums The National and Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers preceded their signing to Beggars Banquet in 2004. Alligator (2005), raised their profile as the band grew into a compelling and incendiary live proposition. Boxer (2007) sold over three times as many copies as its predecessor and saw them gracing the likes of the Letterman show and touring with REM. Barack Obama later used 'Fake Empire' in his election campaign, on the soundtrack to the promotional video Signs Of Hope And Change.
Since going the distance with Boxer, which along with Alligator has made countless “album of the decade” lists, The National have been, in the main, very busy. Aaron and Bryce produced Dark Was The Night. “That was a real undertaking,” says Aaron. The 31-track album to benefit the Red Hot Organization featured contributions from Arcade Fire, Bon Iver,
Grizzly Bear, Yeasayer, and many others. It has so far raised close to $1,000,000. This allowed Red Hot to make donations to many AIDS charities, including an emergency grant of $150,000 to Partners In Health in Haiti, right after the earthquake. The Dessners also produced a sold-out concert for Dark Was The Night at Radio City Music Hall, at which The National performed as well as acts like David Byrne, Dirty Projectors, Feist and Bon Iver. The brothers were then commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy Of Music to write and perform a 70-minute through composed song cycle at the Howard Gilman Opera House, with orchestra, to accompany a film by artist Matthew Ritchie. Their songs for this project were sung by Matt Berninger, Kim and Kelley Deal (Breeders, Pixies) and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond). It went by the name of The Long Count. “It was a lot of pressure,” says Aaron, “but the music for The Long Count was made in a parallel time frame to The National album, so there was some back and forth between the two. We were writing and sending stuff to Matt over a period of time.” “I was stockpiling it,” adds Matt. “After all the touring for Boxer, nobody wanted to dive back in to being-in-a-band right away. It took a while to get our brains cooking again. Aaron and Bryce always have creative outlets, and my wife had a baby girl at the beginning of 2009, so I unplugged from music and focused on family a little. Then gradually I’d walk around writing cornerstones of lyrics for all the sketches they’d sent me. It was a drip-by-drip, trickle-through process.” “We always agonise,” says Aaron. “The process can be difficult. But eventually something beautiful and cohesive emerged.”
Having their own studio proved a boon. “It made so much more possible,” enthuses Aaron. Behind his old Victorian house lay a 1920s garage that’d been decaying for years. In summer 2008 the band decided to invest in transforming it. “For the first time in our lives, we had access to a really great home studio. We were now creating the shape of the sound-world ourselves. We could capture and preserve the spontaneity and roughness of first takes but also re-do things many times if we wished, pre-determining the outcome a little better. The record has a thick, layered, shifting textural feeling to it that we discovered through experimentation. The rawness of the garage recordings also gives the whole thing a sense of humility that I think is important.” Many of the songs went through generations of evolution. A few however were based on Aaron’s original demos, when what initially happened “accidentally” couldn’t be recaptured. The striking opening track, 'Terrible Love', was based on an “accidental” guitar sound.
Meanwhile, Matt was gradually zero-ing in on a selection of the dozens of pieces of music he’d been sent. “The studio meant things could be done at any pace we wanted; there was a different vibe. That the guys had so much on their plate meant less anxiety and more space. When I told them which ones I was getting attached to, I think they were surprised. I was drawn towards more ugly tones and rhythms, perhaps not the usual sweet spots.” Matt expressed a desire to hear things that “sounded like hot tar. Or loose wool.”
“So it’s not a hi-fi record,” agrees Aaron. “But it’s also not garage rock. It’s somewhere in between. It’s very heartfelt. The only harmonious finger-picking, which was really the core sound of Alligator and Boxer, is on 'Runaway'. It’s our scrappiest record and our most immediate, with plenty of loose ends.” In Aaron’s opinion these are Matt’s strongest lyrics (“[And] he’s singing out more, less understated”). It’s definitely epic. Matt concurs that he was looking for melodies that were “fun, and maybe a little outside my previous range.” While he acknowledges that a personal, confessional element is always going to be intrinsic in the lyrics, there’s a conviction that High Violet has a wider, communal perspective. “There’s more of an “us” than an “I”. The perspective is less singular. Maybe that has to do with having a baby and family.” It’s perhaps most evident on 'Afraid Of Everyone', a chilling response to the separations currently dividing America. While 'Conversation 16' hovers on the brink of frustration and rage, 'Runaway' is the subtlest of love songs and 'Lemonworld' hails the value of hope, fun and fantasy. As Matt muses, the lyrics were going to go where they wanted “and I could only fight that up to a point.”
The album features guest appearances from Justin Vernon, Sufjan Stevens, Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire), Padma Newsome and Thomas Bartlett. 'Bloodbuzz Ohio' will be the first single. On one level a rip-snorting dynamic rock song, it’s also an elegy to things that are gone and to realising you’ll never be a teenager again. “But then, I prefer misquotes to the actual lyrics,” says Matt. “It gives the songs more dimensions when people are hearing something else...”
High Violet is something else. Stay alert. Hear it in any dimension you choose, but hear it.
“Somehow we create our own little world,” says Aaron, “and it works, even though sometimes it shouldn’t. We stick with it, and it goes somewhere.”
Go with it.