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11 May 2010

Tigers & spiders & dreams, oh my! Some words about The National’s “High Violet”

As a brief preamble to this piece of writing about The National’s new album “High Violet,” I should offer this full disclosure: I’ve worked in close association with the band since 2001 when I put out their first album on my label Brassland. (I’ve known members of the band quite a bit longer.) Since making the leap to London’s Beggars Banquet label group in 2005 or so, they’ve kept me around to manage their back catalog & write textual materials introducing various new releases. I’ll be honest it was all quite a bit more fun when none of us knew what we were doing & (sub)cultural ubiquity was nowhere on the horizon. That said, it’s been thrilling to witness their development so closely — as musicians, as a business & as a cultural entity. Anyway, here it goes — my words after this obligatory cover shot:

And this obligatory detail of the piece I utilize as a tool to understand their music — Richard Serra‘s “Verb List Compilation: Actions to Relate to Oneself” (1967-1968):

But first, a word about history: The National were born quietly in 1999, and birthed publicly in 2000 when they made their first album and played their first concerts in a pair of small, modest, now shuttered Brooklyn clubs. As the shorthand goes, they were “two pairs of brothers, one best friend.” Beginning with the twangy roots of that self-titled debut (2001) – expanding into the omnibus of alt-rock songwriting that was Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003) – taking the crucial, aspirational half-step into the Cherry Tree EP (2004) – then bursting out with the scrappy anthems of Alligator (2005) – the band finally went widescreen with Boxer (2007), a through-composed pop album that finally turned a ten year-old pasttime into a much-lauded career.


Now a word about materials: Throughout their body of work, The National have seeded a universe worth of symbols & signs. Chandeliers indicate precarious domesticity. Home entertainment systems (headphones & radios & television sets) are windows on the soul. Birds stand in for character archtypes (geese, swans, crows). And every set piece takes place in a nameless, moonlit city that’s occasionally and arbitrarily lent a real world name — Los Angeles, London, New York. Finally, forms of water describe moments of emotional tension and release. Oceans & rivers & rain are reservoirs of feeling & pain.

I’m reminded of the sculptor Richard Serra who, in the late 1960s, created a piece in which he wrote out all the ways he could handle his materials:
— to roll
— to crease
— to bend
— to fold

That simple way of imagining possibilities quickly grew more complex:
— to tear
— to chip
— to split
— to sever

The tools The National have perfected are more complex still. Their effect, though, reminds me of Serra’s list. Through the lens of their music, I view Serra’s sequence of gestures as a list of instructions taking us through permutations of the human heart.
— to cut
— to open
— to remove
— to disarrange

The National have become that rare band, fully fluent in their own unique language. And finally they seem poised make use of it the way R.E.M. and U2 once did — entering that magical zone where invention is effortless, perfection an accident, and true pleasure a mere variation on a theme.


Let’s finish with a word about execution; you should understand High Violet as a collective effort. Amplifying The National’s core membership and regular roster of supporting players, scholars of linear notes may notice a constellation of minor stars on this album – Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, composer & celebrity arranger Nico Muhly, keyboard magician Thomas Bartlett aka Doveman, violinist & violist Padma Newsome from Clogs. There are brief appearances by one of the indie generation’s most enigmatic icons. Sufjan Stevens, and one by its most soothing young voice Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver. People who only listen to the record, however, would be excused for missing all that — because in context, there are no showy cameos, only the warm, anonymous din of a family reunion.

Maybe it’s premature to propose The National as the leading members of an underground pop firmament that’s kicked off this young century — but it is clear they have the wisdom to become one of the artists who will survive. Where many musicians, late into their career, are still recapitulating what it’s like to be 19 again (or 21, or 27), The National’s music anticipates is what it’s like to be 30 and 40, and well past that. “Oh, our lonely kicks are getting harder to find,” Matt Berninger sings on “Little Faith” and — contrary to the title — you pretty much believe him.

So: where the sole focus used to be Berninger whispering in your ear, these days he’s joined by a male chorus that telegraphs & amplifies his emotions.

And: where once there was a leader, now the entire band moves as a unit: –to buzz, –to snap, –to hum, –to tap, –to hover, –to vamp, –to intone

And: where once The National were known for their scrappy manner & charmingly ambivalent ambitions, they’re now a group of depth and echoes. The opening track, “Terrible Love,” reminds me of nothing less than the regal & kinky drone of the Velvet Underground. Sounds I once thought inimitable have been passed along like some holy meme the ancestor no longer cares for, and the inheritor now owns.

On High Violet, the National’s private language has taken root and, with those seeds firmly planted, blooms exploding, may their garden continue to grow.

In an example of bizarre coincidence, I wrote the above without knowing the sculptural origins of the album cover for High Violet. A bit on that via this interview with singer Matt conducted byThe Quietus‘s Laura Snapes.

You brought up loads of things I wanted to ask about – where did the title come from, and where did you come across Mark Fox’s sculpture that’s on the cover?

Matt Berninger: I think we found the image before I figured out the title. I wanted to avoid using a black and white photograph, but I didn’t know what to do. At one point, Scott, who does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to the artwork, he and I were working on a lot of different ideas. We made these solid pink covers, we wanted something that was so different from anything we’d done before, so they were bright fluorescent pink. That didn’t look good! And then for a while, when we were working with the title Summer Lovin’ Torture Party, we were going to have a pink cover with that being the title, which would be the last thing you’d expect us to do. But then we realised that that’s also kind of annoying and silly. But Mark’s work, I started looking at a lot of different artists and randomly searching, and seeing his stuff – he’s also from Cincinnati – his stuff has this the sense of the work of a madmen, with these intricate cut up words. Most of his stuff is about ten times the size of ‘Binding Forces’, which is the album cover. They usually fill a room, and look like they must have taken months and months of elves cutting out coloured paper and doodles that are built in these giant swarms and nests of chaos. So that kind of thing just felt good for the record, because so many of the songs are these collages of thoughts and little ideas, and all these sonic elements and textures. The songs in many ways are these swarms of thought and emotion and sound. So that’s why a lot of his stuff seemed perfect. We’re actually using other pieces of his for the ‘Bloodbuzz’ single, and the one after that too, they’re all his sculptures.

Aren’t the words on ‘Binding Forces’ from some religious doctrine?

Matt Berninger: I don’t know, I haven’t been able to figure it out. I can read a little of it, and he said that it’s from some sort of official document — I don’t know if that’s historical or religious. I know in a lot of his other work, he will take these papal decrees, and then there’s this specific one that’s a papal announcement, something from the Vatican. He will paint the entire script, then cut it all out, then build it into this giant cloud, that’s literally the size of a cloud that fills a room. So a lot of his stuff does that. It just felt really right for the album.

Did you know him in Cincinnati or did you just stumble across his work?

Matt Berninger: Total full disclosure, he’s my second cousin, but I never knew him as a kid, I only knew that he’d moved to New York long before I did and became a well known famous artist. I’d met him a few times, but I was looking up work from a lot of people, and he’s a very established guy. He’s got stuff in the Whitney and all these places. It was a happy circumstance that his stuff works so well, so we started partnering on this thing. His stuff was just so perfectly suited.

And finally, obligatory nostalgia shot, from an early tour with the band in Paris, circa December 2002.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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  1. On 2010-5-13 Paul Cooley said:

    A lovely piece here sir. The use of serra’s verb list is just perfect. As a 22-something living in one those “anonymous cities” Berninger and Co. are always talking about…It’s nice to have a comforting light to keep me company.

    Their music provides that; thankfully, now it will be more accessible to everyone thanks to the overwhelming positive energy that surrounds this record!

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