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Album review: The National's 'High Violet'

May 11, 2010 |  5:54 pm
Highvoilet The 11 songs on The National’s fifth album flow through the ears like an inky river with a top layer of prismatic sheen, like gasoline on black water. The Victorian high-church mood is so consistent that it’s sometimes hard to tell when a song has ended and another has started. That monochrome is a gift of the Brooklyn brooders, and occasionally a curse.

With 2007’s “Boxer,” the two sets of brothers and unrelated lead vocalist Matthew Berninger cemented a niche appeal similar to that of Wilco, the Chicago heroes of emotionally weighty songs. But where Wilco is ragged, the National is ruffled and tufted, sometimes embracing pomp and circumstance, sometimes turning its back on it cold.

One of the most stunning pieces on “High Violet” is “England,” which opens with steadily mounting orchestration -- rippling piano chords, the low thunder of drums, some pining strings and lofty horns. At its blustery peak, it threatens to topple from its own melodrama. The pleasure is in listening to how often the National scrapes up close to maudlin, only to retreat in the nick of time.

For all the depression, these guys certainly have the energy to work themselves into a frenzy. If Berninger’s voice has found 100 shades of morose, Bryan Devendorf counteracts it with his own language of ticking, dancing, approach-from-all-sides drumming.

When Berninger sings, “sorrow found me when I was young / sorrow waited, sorrow won… it’s in my honey, it’s in my milk,” it rings out like band philosophy. To drink in sadness is just natural for some. Leave happiness to the lazy pop stars.

-- Margaret Wappler

The National
"High Violet"
Three and a half stars (out of four)

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