Published on May 10th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Celebrating Ten Years of The National’s ‘High Violet’
Indie rockers, The National, released their breakout album on May 11, 2010 to great acclaim. Discovering it as an angsty 16 year old meant everything.
The National are one of my favorite bands. But it feels slightly awkward commemorating the 10- year anniversary of an album that I wasn’t even keyed into upon release. Despite reading up on how it was apparently their big breakthrough–the record that not only hit with critics, but also hit with listeners—I never really experienced that buzz. I’ve read online that it was the album that catapulted them to a kind of quasi-stardom, the top of the indie rock mountain. I’ve read that the album debuted at #3 on the US Billboard and #2 in Canada in 2010.. Apparently, it went on to reach certified gold status in Canada and the UK. Apparently, High Violet was where the band truly figured out how to make their sound accessible without sacrificing their integrity. Apparently, it was a smashing success.
I discovered The National when I was in the 11th grade. It was 2012 and autumn was beginning to morph into that glum, frigid darkness that blankets the Prairies whenever winter comes knocking. I’ve always been a seasonal affective disorder kind of guy; when I was 16, I started to really discover it settling into my bones. What was previously a mild, love tap of sadness and lethargy suddenly felt like a devastating laceration. And so, like most depressed teenagers, I showed all the symptoms that a melancholy indie rock band like The National aspired to treat. I didn’t find High Violet (and the rest of their discography) as much as it found me. As Matt Berninger croons on the second track: “Sorrow found me when I was young; sorrow waited, sorrow won.” Well just as The National found me when I was young, they also patiently waited and chipped away at me slowly until they found themselves a home under my skin.
For me, celebrating its 10th anniversary seems like more of an exercise in conformity than anything. It’s the type of demarcation everyone recognizes as meaningful and significant—a sign that a piece of pop culture has staying power. It’s a way for people to indulge a nostalgia for their past. The age old: “where were you when this album came out?” Personally, I was nestled in my grade 9 desk listening to Guns & Roses and Led Zeppelin, completely oblivious to this thing called “indie rock.” So I don’t really have much to say about the cultural significance of High Violet. I don’t have any hot takes on the album’s significance in relation to world events or the cultural milieu or anything like that.
But since 10 years is a noteworthy benchmark for any album’s staying power, and because I see it as a classic in my own right, I’ll play ball. But all I can bring to the table is why it feels like such a classic to me—why it feels timeless in my head, untethered to the usual metric of what makes an album timely and resonant in its given year. But then again, I guess every great album feels timeless in your head; every time you hit play it re-ignites that feeling like you’re hearing it for the first time. The best thing I can say about High Violet is that it resurrects itself every time I hear it, retaining that freshness, that endless excitement that great musicians find clever ways of inserting into their song writing. I discover something new every time, yet nothing feels distinctly old.
I think what separates this album from other National albums is the distinctive ferocity with which it greets you as you enter its first track, “Terrible Love.” Immediately the guitars drag along an extra dose of reverb and Matt’s vocals show a transition from mumble-y, internalized folk to a full-on embrace of anthemic, stadium filling bravado. It’s that combination of a more epic scale, a deeper, more triumphant atmosphere with the band’s signature malaise that gives it such weight. The album’s first string of tracks such as “Terrible Love,” “Sorrow,” “Anyone’s Ghost,” and “Little Faith” tout serious symptoms of ennui, the kind that is specifically written to straddle that line of outwardly relatable and deeply, inaccessibly personal. “It takes an ocean not to break” is the kind of hook that was meant to be chanted by concert goers. Yet, if you see The National live, you will easily see Matt and co. wear the pain and confusion that inspired those lyrics on their faces. Matt cringes and groans along with lines like that or “Now I’m stuck in New York and the rain’s coming down” or “I’ll set a fire just to see what it kills.”
That level of self-deprecation and location-specific ennui did little to prevent 16-year old me from filling every blank space in the chip on my shoulder with those emotions. When you listen to the National, especially as an impressionable teenager, you inherit everything Matt sings. It goes above and beyond a singer’s feelings just bluntly hitting you in the eardrums. I felt like I absorbed feelings I never felt, experienced things I’d never experienced. Location specificity is, in fact, a big part of this album with tracks like “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “England” invoking the nostalgia for places I had never visited. Yet, Matt doesn’t want to take you to those places as much as he wants you to visit the very impressionistic memories of them that he carries in his own mind.
He also wants you to experience his memories of wistful heartbreak, of yearning for a lost relationship. If the album has an over-arching theme its that we associate emotions and relationships with places, aesthetics, little nuances that stick in our brains. We conflate those feelings and churn out lines like “You must be somewhere in London; you must be loving your life in the rain.” Or the classic hook on the album’s final track “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”: “All the very best of us, string ourselves up for love.” Just broad enough to apply to every listener’s life experience (even a young angsty kid like me), but crafted with enough emotional intelligence to feel real, transparent, honest.
The musicianship also deserves a tremendous amount of praise. Despite how it may feel when listening to The National, they are not a one-man band. Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s guitar playing is electrifying and epic, shedding folksier instrumental accoutrement for an emphasis on atmosphere and soundscape. From “Terrible Love” to “Afraid of Everyone” to “Lemonworld,” the guitars consistently prop up the anthemic lyrics with a pitch perfect blanket of ethereality, along with the occasional dose of noise thrown in as well. The Dessner’s guitars, along with Scott Devendorf’s bass lines, sound liberated to evoke in more subtle ways, to participate in a bigger wall of sound. They add up to more than the sum of their parts—a feat that previous National albums appeared less confident in attempting. “Sorrow’s” backbone is a simple power chord made effective precisely because of its simplicity. Though it isn’t flashy, the technique shines through; it exhilarates, if anything, because of the wrist-breaking tempo with which it is delivered. The band shows a commitment to making guitar music interesting without putting it on a pedestal up above everything else.
Additionally, Bryan Devendorf’s drums tie together entire songs into percussive tone poems, especially on “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” in which a simple yet astoundingly effective kick and snare beat punctuates the tune with a tight-fisted, teeth-grinding angst. However, a song like “England” once again proves the “less is more” principle, with the song holding its drums back to a simple back beat for most of its run, until the songs reaches its big, resounding bridge. Each musician has their moments to shine, but they also prove to be team players participating in a larger effort to make something greater than guitar, bass, and drum music.
Also peppered throughout the record are brilliant moments of vocal layering and backing tracks that give the album an even fuller sound. “Afraid of Everyone” grows to a crescendo as a faint falsetto harmony “oohs and ahs” its way to a resounding coalescence of despair and loneliness. And friend of the band Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) pops up on the closing track to deliver an even smoother harmonization, his high-pitched sensibility serving as a perfect yin to Matt’s yang.
All these components make up a record that I discovered at just the right time in my life. Thought that was two years after its initial release, its consistent marriage of somber melodies with epic, almost cinematic production really shaped the way I listened to music. It made me discover the dark side of the power of rock. It showed me that “heaviness” in rock was not just a number that you crank your amp up to. It was an emotional weight that could crescendo to a pulsating conclusion. It could capture the emotional density of the human experience while still being catchy and accessible. Music could still be sad and personal and still fucking rock.
The National may get called “pussies” by a lot of rock elitists who turn up their noses to the soft, openly vulnerable sensibilities of their sound. But to me, that is just as hard, just as intense as any sexy guitar solo or any ear-ringing vocal fry. As I came of age, I discovered that the songs that truly transcended weren’t about sexy chicks or the typical, angry “here we are now, entertain us” hooks. I didn’t want to hear the blame placed on someone else. I wanted to know that someone else hated living with themself as much as me.