By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published on Culturespill.com
Like Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, The National’s High Violet has the feel of an important record on the order of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Modest Mouse’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, Radiohead’s OK Computer or Tegan and Sara’s So Jealous. It’s the kind of record that is also a cultural event, the sort of music that puts teenagers in the uncomfortable circumstance of finding themselves listening to the same music as their parents.
High Violet never quite attains that stature, but even to split the difference between itself and those standard bearers is an achievement that cannot be overstated. With his plaintive baritone and the lush, achingly sad arrangements it’s cushioned in throughout the album, Matt Berninger sounds as if he means to sing the stars into rubies. “Terrible Love” reverberates with a radiant distortion that brings to mind the best work of Galaxie 500, while the sudden pluck of an electric guitar slices through the mix on “Little Faith” or “Afraid of Everyone” like a switchblade.
If High Violet has a flaw it can only be that the songs have a habit of melting into one another in an unending atmosphere of melancholy that can feel contrived and emotionally monotone about halfway through. But at bottom this is a gorgeous, dreamy and affecting set that should hold its own against the finest albums of the coming decade. Previous records like Alligator or Boxer—however well they fared with the indie crowd—only play like flickering shadows of the fire that is High Violet, and few of the year’s best records boast this one’s cross-generational appeal.
And now a warning for fans of The National: The album’s decadent production performs a brave and effective tight-rope act between tastefulness and tactlessness. This time around, the songs always fall somewhere on the side of tastefulness (as they have on all four of the group’s previous LPs). But the more you listen to the record the more you realize how possible it is that this may be the last great album we’ll hear from this band. The Kings of Leon’s epic Because of the Times yielded the steaming turds Only by the Night and this year’s Come Around Sundown; and High Violet, for all its splendor and brilliance, sounds like it threatens to do the same.