The National: It’s A Terrible Love

Side Note to the Hipsters: The National was around and releasing albums long before Interpol, go pick on She Wants Revenge!

“Terrible Love” opens High Violet with a hazily distant wave of sound that slowly envelopes and seeps into our subconscious, followed by lead vocalists Matt Berningers melancholic baritone vocal delivery.  Opening track “Terrible Love,” like the whole of High Violet is dominated by Berninger’s vocals and drummer Bryan Devendorf’s incendiary drum performance.

Matt Berninger is often described as a more melodic Ian Curtis. For the un-hipsters: Ian Curtis is the deceased singer of the legendary Post-Punk act Joy Division. Berninger is a figure that cuts a melancholic world view for us the listener. Berninger’s lyrics are oblique yet affecting. Compared to the poetics of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan that often read as a narration on paper, Berniger is musically poetic. The lyrical content behind High Violet focuses on adult topics such as stagnation, stubborn re-birth, letting go of the past, and accepting your current plot in life.

The opening Track “Terrible Love,” tells the story of a dysfunctional relationship, about the suffocation often felt when trapped in what is seemingly a dead-end situation without an exit. The main refrain of “Terrible Love” is: “It’s a terrible Love and I am walking with spiders, it’s a terrible love that I am walking with, it’s a quiet company” perfectly sums up the feeling(s) behind any self-destructive relationship with another or with one’s self.

As I have previously stated, the vocal and drum performances are what drive High Violet,  with guitars and various other backing instruments often taking a backseat thus allowing Berninger’s vocals and Devendorf’s drums to dominate. This dynamic is most apparent on Track 6. “Bloodbuzz, Ohio.” On “Bloodbuzz, Ohio” we find our protagonist being carried back to his home state of Ohio on a swarm of bees only to be disquietly aware that he is no longer remembered by anyone. It would take an act of desperation such as throwing yourself into oncoming traffic, or marrying your high school homecoming queen, in order to get the townsfolk to acknowledge your own existence.

Track 8. “Runaway” approaches wayward escapism as well as oppression by way of a torch song.  Backed by swelling strings, and lightly plucked acoustic-guitar lines, Berninger’s lyrical focus is to resist giving up the fight, to resist the urge to just throw up your arms and give in. “Runaway” also reminds us that the sheer force of adversity is often a debilitating and crushing one; it takes a strong will, as well as a fierce determination, to overcome misfortune. Generally in life we choose the middle road, choosing to take it on the chin in order to try and keep the peace, when we really should be fighting the good fight. “Runaway” sums up these feelings and approach in a highly eloquent manner.

Track 9. “Conversation 16” is downright disturbing; if AMCs new series the zombie based The Walking Dead needed a perfect song to set a quiet build up to a scene of horror, it would be “Conversation 16″. Our protagonists are wishing to leave the silver city (presumably New York) before the city consumes both their mental and physical well being.  Berninger uses a zombie-esque brain eating metaphor to describe the horrors of the mental abuse often directed at another when we are at our most darkly evil as humans. “Conversation 16”’s down-tempo mood is camouflaged by a slightly up-tempo drum performance; eerie and darkly rich and swelling music greatly enhance the tracks themes of escapism, regret, madness, and naivety.

Track 10. “England” is to me the highlight of High Violet. An emotional track that perfectly encapsulates the feelings felt when longing for a lost love that has long moved on. On “England” our subject has moved on and is now living across the Atlantic and loves life in the rain, while our protagonist is spending a reflective night alone trying not to think at all. “England” slowly builds up to an epic crescendo in which our protagonist is still unable to ease his mind, remaining tortured as well as conflicted.

Track 11. “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” is an epic anthem of cinematic proportions that closes High Violet with a sorrowful resignation. As with most of Berninger’s lyrical content, the meanings behind most of The Nationals songs are open to our own individual takeaways.  I get the impression that our subject is feeling tied down by a very critical partner, as the mention of a swan within the lyrics represent unity, mate-ship and purity, thus providing an apt metaphor when describing a unity/marriage. “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” bookends the album with the reality that while we fight and reject the norm, we often find ourselves compromising, as much as we disdain compromise. In the end of the day compromise equals growth.

Many arm-chair critics are quick to point out the so-called influences of The National, to quote often heard anecdotes when describing The National, “oh they sound like Joy Division, they are ripping off Interpol, man those guitars sound like they belong on a Smiths album,” and so forth.  While earlier albums like Alligator had more of an indie guitar driven feel, and Boxer had a more baroque-rock meets Springsteen sound, with High Violet The National has truly arrived, a dead-serious act ready to challenge the status quo.

I have listened to a lot of new releases thus far in 2010, however none of these releases have warranted as many repeated plays that High Violet has.  This coupled with the timelessness, as well as emotional impact felt with listening to High Violet and the artistry behind the album; make this my pick for the best album released in 2010.

Side Note to the Hipsters: The National was around and releasing albums long before Interpol, go pick on She Wants Revenge!


1. The National “High Violet”
2. Jonsi “Go”
3. Kanye West “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”
4. Arcade Fire “The Suburbs”
5. The Tallest Man on Earth “The Wildest Hunt / Sometimes the Blues”
6. Beach House “Teen Dream”
7. Rihanna “Loud”
8. Janelle Monáe “The Archandroid”
9. Sufjan Stevens “Age of Adz”
10. LCD Soundsystem “This Is Happening”

Tough list. Biggest misses were MGMT (not surprising) and Vampire Weekend (really thought they’d be strong when they released but kinda faded into the background with the strengths of later releases).

Posted December 22, 2010 04:12 am

I’m not at all satisfied with that list. 10 days.

Posted December 22, 2010 04:12 am
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