UPDATE: You can now stream High Violet from The New York Times website. Hurry, it's only there until April 27th!
It is winter. It is night. You are walking around in a vast metropolitan city. Snow is falling. You are wrapped up in a wool sweater. You flinch at every piercing cold gust of wind. The lights of the city surround you. The stores are open, but you see no one. The traffic lights are green, but you see no one. You’re in New York City, but you see no one.
This scene is the powerful image I see every time I listen to Boxer, The National’s 2007 album. Now imagine that same scene, but suddenly the lights switch off and the darkness becomes alive. Almost like a horrific nightmare, where the darkness shows the traits of a colossal kraken. The darkness swirls around you and the only thing you can think of is the fact that you are alone.
That scene is the powerful image I see every time I listen to High Violet, The National’s newest album. Not every song on the album is one of such terrifying nature, but an edgy and disturbing darkness is a key characteristic to this record.
“Terrible Love”, the opening track of High Violet, serves as a prophecy of the main plot and can even be considered as separate from rest of the album. Things begin marred and hazy from the darkness, just as the song begins with a low-fi grainy guitar riff. Gradually light becomes stronger and shines upon you and the gleeful piano achieves a similar feat. The light moves faster, hope grows by the second. The light of hope becomes so powerful that any thoughts of the darkness you thought surrounded you are immediately gone. The song ends, you are left with silence, and you have a beautiful, sinking feeling in your heart.
The aforementioned haziness stems from early tracks like “Anyone’s Ghost” and “Little Faith”. Both are very dark and break tradition from the band’s previous work. The two are oddly seductive—you feel compelled to give in and taste the corruptive power of the wild darkness as it tightens its grip. Disembodied echoing, a sharp bass riff, and the depth of Berninger’s unique baritone voice all add to this sensation. Even the lyrics contribute as one of the opening lines of the latter song is “I set a fire, just to see what it kills”.
Suddenly, a stream of light pierces through the black as “Bloodbuzz Ohio” signals the end of the sinister Act I. The echoes are gone, an eager piano replaces the bass, and suddenly Berninger’s voice has become angelic. The second act builds upon the momentum with excellent tracks like the peculiar “Lemonworld” and the acoustic “Runaway”. The darkness begins to thin and you can see the glow of the light behind it.
“Conversation 16” is the final attempt to remove your hope completely—the night’s darkest moments before dawn. By the song’s inspiring finale, the light has broken through, the darkness has dissolved, and pieces float towards the ground. Act III continues this infectious hope with the triumphant “England” and the sentimental “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”.
High Violet teaches us the value of hope by first engulfing us in despair. Even if the end is familiar in its joy, the journey through the dark is nothing short of exhilarating. Welcome back, The National.