What makes a “grower” nowadays? You know — that album that didn’t really hit you at first but somehow, beyond your control, crept its way through your speakers more and more often?
There’s something about a grower that keeps you coming back, keeps you curious, offering new revelations with each listen. It’s like a puzzle, teasing you and only slowly revealing itself as you edge closer to the light you’re sure is at the end of the tunnel. And while The National’s newest record, High Violet, is certainly a grower, extracting any substance from underneath its endless layers may ultimately be for naught.
As hinted at on 2007’s Boxer, High Violet is loaded with heavy textures. The pillars of rock are all there — drums, bass, piano, guitar — but it’s the thick strings and occasional horns that give it that extra push; you’d be hard-pressed to pick out guests Sufjan Stevens and Justin Vernon from the mix. Maybe getting lost in The National’s orchestral fog is all part of it — they’ve managed to create a sound whose sum is far greater than the parts.
The band is at its best with “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “England,” carefully building tension with bursts of strings, horns and guitars (not to mention pounds and pounds of reverb). The former is an obvious choice for a single, with Bryan Devendorf’s mechanic drumming front and center, while the latter is a powerful, affecting anthem, its subtle organ and the unchained shouts at its climax redefining the slow-burn.
So with all the bells and whistles in place, what’s the problem?
Deadlines, as it turn out, and lead singer Matt Berninger’s inability to put meaning to paper. As chronicled in an all-too-demystifying feature by The New York Times (curiously, where the band chose to first stream the album before its release), the band struggled to finish by the date set by its label — plagued by Berninger’s half-finished lyrics, frequent infighting and dilemmas during the mixing process. But while the neatly wrapped arrangements seem mostly unfazed by the ticking clock, Berninger’s evident lack of inspiration was left unresolved.
On Boxer, Berninger’s uninterested baritone worked wonders to counter the grandeur set by the rest of his band, his poignant takes on First World problems rightfully crowning him as chairman of the bored. This time around, he seems to be grasping at straws, at odds with himself and leaving any semblance of a lyrical message at the door. Berninger’s musings have always kept a reasonable distance from real life, but now it’s becoming increasingly clear he’s not really singing about anything at all.
While there are a few poetic flashes of brilliance dotting the record, Berninger’s lyrics are, for the most part, painfully mediocre: “You and your sister live in a lemonworld / I want to sit in and die” (“Lemonworld”); “It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders” (“Terrible Love”); “I was afraid I’d eat your brains / ‘Cause I’m evil” (“Conversation 16”). Why Berninger used some of these lines as a thematic anchor for entire songs is a mystery, as wince-inducing lyrics like these do nothing but squander any self-importance or emotional investment invoked by the rest of the song. It’s tough to believe him, and the record suffers for it.
You could use any number of words to describe High Violet — lush, dense or even rain-soaked — but ultimately “boring” is the one that sticks the hardest. For all its fanfare, carefully laid strings, guitars and vocals, there just isn’t enough at the bottom holding it all up. High Violet sure sounds important, but with Berninger’s lyrical fumblings on embarrassing display — seriously marring what could have been an otherwise gorgeous and complex record — mining any nuggets from it is made all the more difficult.
Make no mistake: The National is a fantastic band with a tremendous ability to capture moods with all the careful temper and power of a symphony. But High Violet shows the band’s penchant for the dramatic thwarted by a lack of substance and inspiration (or both), its towering bombast sounding all too forced.
But hey, maybe it’ll grow on you.