The National – High Violet – Classic Music Review

Over the span of his career, the essence of Berninger’s thematic focus as a songwriter has essentially remained the same. “Sometimes, I want to remind myself of ideas I’ve written, so I write them again in a different way,” he says. “Usually that idea is one of three things: I’m freaked out about the world, I want to be a good husband and dad and I’m trying but sometimes I’m a bit of an asshole, and I’m sorry. So it’s either: I’m scared, I’m sorry, or I love you. It’s one of those three things, almost always.”

—“The National: Running Through the Woods,” American Songwriter

Most everyone I know feels that High Violet is more of a “freaked out about the world” album than the other two, but as we’ll see when we go through the songs, the three ideas aren’t mutually exclusive. In many ways, High Violet is a thematic extension of Boxer, a theme Matt Berninger identified as “the anxiety of being a middle-class American white guy.”

While I appreciate the acknowledgment of his racial privilege, the anxiety that dampened the American spirit was not limited to white people. The fear engendered by 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror consumed the entire population; the brief high experienced by those who supported Obama faded fast once they realized that the bag of crap Bush II left on the White House doorstep wasn’t going to vanish overnight.

The origins of that bag of crap can be traced to the American passion for making a fast buck. Once the recession of the early 2000s began to recede, the slick and greedy came up with the perfect scam to cover their losses—perfect because it exploited the middle-class version of the American Dream: to own your own home. Banks and mortgage lenders (including government mortgage lenders) started offering home loans to just about anyone, regardless of their credit history. Under the ludicrous assumption that home prices would continue to rise forever—a pitch peddled by the lenders and swallowed whole by the buyers—those sub-prime mortgages, “secured” by mortgage-backed securities, featured interest rates that went up over time. When the housing market began to soften and wages failed to rise enough to cover the difference, a whole lot of people couldn’t meet their mortgage payments. The scam finally unraveled, the dominoes began to fall and leading financial institutions either went belly-up or had just enough of a pulse to earn huge government bailouts. “Between June 2007 and November 2008, Americans lost more than a quarter of their net worth. By early November 2008, a broad U.S. stock index, the S&P 500, was down 45% from its 2007 high. Housing prices had dropped 20% from their 2006 peak, with futures markets signaling a 30–35% potential drop. Total home equity in the United States, which was valued at $13 trillion at its peak in 2006, had dropped to $8.8 trillion by mid-2008 and was still falling in late 2008.” (Wikipedia)

Though technically the Great Recession ended in the United States in the middle of 2009, the cold economic numbers failed to capture the lingering impact of the trauma and distrust engendered by the experience nor the long-term damage to personal finances. My most vivid memory of that period had to do with a business trip I took to Las Vegas in 2009. I was staying at the Bellagio on the company dime and had a nice hole in my schedule that allowed me to schedule a massage at the hotel spa. About fifteen minutes into the treatment, I mentioned to the masseuse that I’d heard that Vegas had been especially hard hit by the housing crisis and asked her how she was holding up. “Oh, you don’t want to hear about that,” she said, which made me press her even further. Essentially, she’d lost everything—she and her husband couldn’t make the mortgage payments and the bank had foreclosed; the hotel had cut her hours because tourists couldn’t afford to come to Vegas; her husband lost his job at another hotel/casino; and the two of them were staying with relatives where they slept with their kids in a single bedroom. I left all the cash I’d brought to waste at the gaming tables as a tip, and spent the rest of my time in Vegas feeling like shit.

There were millions of people who experienced something similar during the Great Recession, and millions of others who knew someone who had fallen on hard times. A lot of people lost their jobs and those who still had jobs worried about their shrinking 401(k’s) and pension accounts. The terrorist threat was still on everyone’s minds . . . politics became more divisive with the emergence of the Tea Party and the paranoia spewed by right-wing radio and Fox News . . . mass shootings filled the headlines . . . crushing student loan debt left the next generation with little hope of economic security . . . there were a plethora of reasons to be “freaked out by the world” at the time High Violet was released in 2010. And thanks to MAGA and the pandemic, High Violet has become a timeless album, reflecting the seemingly perpetual anxiety that defines America today.

The Great Recession and the anxiety it triggered extended far beyond American shores, which may explain (in part) why High Violet was a worldwide success. High Violet was not only a Top 10 album in the English-speaking countries of Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the U.K. but sold just as well in Belgium (Flanders), Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece and Sweden—countries where over half the population speaks English as an alternative language. Despite that apparent correlation, I think it would be a mistake to attribute the connection entirely to language proficiency, for Berninger’s lyrics are often opaque and require significant effort to decode, even for native English speakers. I doubt very much that those watching television in countries where they air popular American TV shows with subtitles that even those with a decent command of English could make much sense of lines like “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees” or “I defend my family with an orange umbrella” or even “You and your sister live in a Lemonworld.” Berninger explained his lyrical approach in an interview posted on The Talks: “Most of the time I’m trying to write a feeling, not a story. I’m not necessarily trying to describe the details of a place or event so much as the feeling of the thing. It is a kind of weird alchemy that is elusive until it feels right. Like the line ‘It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders.’ I’m not sure what that specifically means, but I know what the feeling feels like, kind of.”

One of the most common symptoms of anxiety involves the difficulty of expressing oneself. In that sense, the ambiguous lyrics mirrored the uncertain feelings of millions of listeners around the world trying to cope with a world where certainty had become elusive. But while the lyrics are a vital component of High Violet, it’s the color and depth of the music that touches the heart and soul and strengthens the lyrical mood.

As noted in my review of Boxer, the National take a unique approach to song development. Aaron or Bryce Dressner come up with a musical theme and hand it over to Berninger, who in turn develops the lyrics, melody and rhythm based on the feelings evoked by the theme. As Berninger is not a trained musician, his response to music is intuitive and strongly grounded in the mood evoked by the music. The musical themes the Dressners provide involve astonishingly simple chording; the songs on High Violet contain anywhere from three to six chords that every novice guitarist is familiar with. One advantage of simple chording is that it makes it easier for the composer to build strong, memorable motifs, and the repetition of those simple chords and motifs increases the odds that the music will be imbued with immersive power.

Once the basic structure is in place, the band shifts to full collaboration mode to develop the arrangements. It’s important to note that the National is not a “closed shop” where only band members are allowed input, but an “open shop” that encourages the supporting musicians they bring into the fold to share in the fun. On Boxer, the National brought in fourteen musicians and arrangers; for High Violet, that number increased to twenty-six. If you read the reviews of High Violet, you’ll see the word “dense” used repeatedly to describe the arrangements. “Dense” has multiple negative connotations, and its use in this context may give the impression that the music on High Violet is a crowded mess. I prefer to  characterize the arrangements as “rich,” developed and mixed with exceptional skill and deliberation. Many of the arrangements feature orchestral instruments arrayed in combinations ranging from solo to chamber orchestra, producing a musical palette featuring both gentle coloring and darker washes, creating moods of achingly beautiful melancholy and elusive hope. The overall feel of the music is best described as “anthemic but free of pomposity,” loaded with undeniable emotional impact. Despite the stunning array of instrumentation, the National left no doubt that their roots remained tied to indie rock and its essential power; Bryan Devendorf has plenty of opportunities to confirm his status as one of the great drummers of the 21st century while guitars and bass still play significant roles in the mix.

The unusual guitar sound that pervades the arrangement of “Terrible Love” was Aaron Dessner’s attempt to create the sound of “loose wool.” As he explained to The Quietus, “‘Loose wool’ is ‘Terrible Love.’ I remember Bryce (Dessner) saying, ‘Ok, what does loose wool sound like?’ and Matt went, ‘bam-bam-bam’ [makes much more sense audibly] so then I created this effect and turned the amp up beyond loud, tuned the guitar down and just had these harmonic pedals on that make it sound weird.” I’d describe the result as closer to “loose steel wool,” an oscillating roughness that gives the song an immediate and lasting edginess that provides contrast to the stately rhythm punctuated by straight piano chords while also echoing the shaky emotions expressed in Matt’s vocal. The lyrics have to do with love, but the imagery isn’t exactly what you’ve come to expect in a love song:

It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders
It’s a terrible love and I’m walking in
It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders
It’s a terrible love and I’m walking in
It’s quiet company
It’s quiet company

“Terrible” in this context doesn’t sync with the common meanings of “really bad,” “astonishingly shitty” or “downright repulsive.” You’ll have to read further in your Merriam-Webster dictionary and use the secondary meaning: “Difficult “. . . “Awesome” (formidable in nature) . . . “Terrifying” (exciting extreme alarm or intense fear). Except for the people who’ve never had a lover’s spat and who probably don’t exist anyway, the rest of us know that love can be challenging at times. It’s also awe-inspiring—the emotional power of love knows no equal. And it’s terrifying for a number of reasons—you’re scared that your baby’s gonna leave you or you’ll hurt their feelings by being an asshole or you’re anxious that the gift you bought your honey will land with a thud.

The build is quite remarkable, though at first listen it seems like a simple matter of gradually adding more instrumentation and messing around with the volume. The arrangement begins with the steel wool guitar dominating the left channel with Bryan’s light kick in the background setting the basic rhythm. The piano chords enter stage right, then Matt begins his reverb-laced vocal in the back center. A touch of acoustic guitar enters at the end of the first verse, and things remain relatively steady until an unidentifiable drone appears in the background close to the end of the second repetition of the opening verse. At that point, Aaron shifts the pattern played on the steel wool guitar into something more assertive while Bryan shifts to double time on the drums, cueing the bridge and a shift from the basic G-C chord pattern to a complementary Em-G-Bm-D-G-Em-D sequence. The change serves as a very temporary relaxation of the build, giving the fresh lyrics of the bridge more prominence and widening the theme to include the crutches people resort to in response to overwhelming anxiety:

And I can’t fall asleep
Without a little help
It takes a while to settle down my shivered bones
Until the panic’s out

As Matt sings those last two lines, Bryan launches into a flurry of high toms and snare beats while the music rises in sync. Suddenly Bryan cuts back to half-time and the soundscape-filling music of the bridge is replaced by a steady drone, held chords from guitar and piano and ethereal background vocals—a dramatic musical setting that gives Matt the opportunity to attach words to emotions that are virtually indescribable:

It takes an ocean not to break
It takes an ocean not to break
It takes an ocean not to break
It takes an ocean not to break
It’s quiet company
It’s quiet company

These words are sung to the same melody as the verses, but Matt sings these lines in a higher octave, imbuing them with a certain poignancy. The next verse leads directly to a repetition of the opening verse which in turn is followed by three intonations of “It takes an ocean not to break.” During this run-on lyrical passage, more layers are added to the build while Bryan bangs away on drums and cymbals—and as the music increases in volume you get the distinct impression that the build is both vertical and horizontal—it sounds like Matt is surrounded by increasing pressure, the solitary man trying to make himself heard above the noise, the fear, and the raucous voices of an anxious world. The music to the fade is in the key of G, and the band makes the wise and appropriate decision to end the song on the tension chord (D) rather than seeking resolution to the G root—the anxiety remains unsatisfied and unresolved. With its unique sonic qualities and almost overwhelming power, “Terrible Love” seems more like a closing number than an album opener, but its place in the pole position tells us that the National intends to leave it all on the playing field.

Given the National’s modus operandi of addressing the darker sides of human nature, it’s fairly easy to misinterpret “Sorrow” as another tale of woe involving a person who is fucked-up by a fucked-up world. I would say that such an interpretation has some truth in it—in the same way that satire reflects the truth. Just read the lyrics to the first two verses, think about all the people you know and then ask yourself if it reminds you of a certain someone:

Sorrow found me when I was young
Sorrow waited, sorrow won
Sorrow, they put me on the pill
It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk

Don’t leave my hyper heart alone on the water
Cover me in rag-and-bone sympathy
‘Cause I don’t wanna get over you
I don’t wanna get over you

Yes! It’s the whiny moaner! The person in your life who embraces tragedy, mourns lost love forever and never moves the fuck on! You don’t have to ask about what medication they’re on—they’ll tell you about all the meds they’re on and how they never seem to do the trick. As Aaron Dessner put it in the promotional video, “We’re just goofing around,” he says. “A lot of people assume that we’re miserable guys and this music is dark, but actually there’s quite a lot of humor in it. ‘Sorrow’ is a sad song, but it is also a kind of weird celebration of feeling sorrow . . . some people like that feeling and they don’t want to get rid of it.”

There’s a big difference between clinical depression and a “poor me” hidden agenda.

The music is ironically beautiful, driven by rapid guitar strums and Devendorf’s contrary hang-back beats. The contrast reflects the disconnection of a tale that doesn’t quite ring true, a theme supported by the melancholy sound of bowed strings and angelic background vocals. The meditative beauty of the music does present a bit of a problem in that it encourages empathy for the whiny moaner when what he really needed was a musical whack upside the head.

Next up are two songs that reference life in New York City, where the Cincinnati boys who make up the band found a home in trendy Brooklyn. “Anyone’s Ghost” is a non-linear failed relationship story involving two introverts, one of whom serves as the narrator. She blows him off by claiming she had the flu; he finds out “from friends that wasn’t true.” Instead, she decides to take a walk, the kind of walk that only an introvert would take, making a defiant protest against the overwhelming impersonality of life in the big city:

Go out at night
With your headphones on again
And walk through
The Manhattan valleys of the dead

The narrator is still stuck on the chick, insisting that he “Didn’t wanna be your ghost/Didn’t wanna be anyone’s ghost” but also admitting he can’t let go: “But I don’t want anybody else/I don’t want anybody else.” Interestingly enough, he recalls a conversation where she accused him of excessive introversion and heartlessness:

You said I came close
As anyone’s come
To live underwater
For more than a month
You said it was not inside my heart, it was
You said it should tear a kid apart, it does

Whether he wound up with custody of a child or she’s referring to his “inner child” is uncertain but the depiction of relational tension is spot-on. What is certain is that the breakup was much harder for the narrator than his partner, as Matt describes with vivid imagery:

I had a hole in the middle
Where the lightning went through it
Told my friends not to worry
I had a hole in the middle
Someone’s sideshow wouldn’t do it

The heavy use of minor chords in a minor key certainly strengthens the sadness in the tale, as does the addition of a female background vocal in the chorus.

My initial take on “Little Faith” was that it was a song that uses time travel as a means of comparing the experience of growing up in Southern Ohio to adult life in the Big Apple, but I felt that I was missing something. The religious imagery in the song baffled me and the few interpretations I read were of no use at all in solving that puzzle. What was the meaning of “All our lonely kicks are getting harder to find/We’ll play nuns versus priests until somebody cries?”

Then I read Matt Berninger’s mini-bio on Wikipedia and found this: “Berninger is a 1989 graduate of St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio.” I checked out the St. Xavier page, where I learned that “The independent, non-diocesan school is operated by the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus as one of four all-male Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.” Matt is listed on that page in the “Notable Alumni” section. The next step was to google “Matt Berninger religion” and . . . miraculously . . . I found a brilliant interpretation of both lyrics and music in an article called “The National’s Secular Heaven,” written by Jack Nuelle for Image:

For example, in the apocalyptic “Little Faith,” from 2010’s High Violet, the narrator uses and discards religious language dispassionately. We’re borne along a post-religious, almost dystopian landscape, a witness to monotony, horror, and a certain black comedy.  A “little faith” is good “to make us laugh,” but not much more. It tags along as we embrace the easy banality of destruction in our modern world, setting “a fire just to see what it kills.” The narrator, marooned, is “stuck in New York as the rain’s coming down.” In a surreal take on a childhood game like cops and robbers, he and his fellow citizens of the bored, lonely city “play nuns versus priests until somebody cries,” just because there’s nothing else of value to do. The only hope, distant as it is, is to leave everything behind, even “our excellent souls,” and “head to the coast.” It’s either that, or remain stranded in “line at the Vanity Fair.” Even as the storm rages, the pretty girls are sucked into the sky, and Radio City sinks.

“Little Faith” is a storm in many ways. It begins with jagged distortion, almost like white noise; the aural equivalent of the curling colors on a Doppler radar screen. Its religious language is nothing but debris. Nuns and priests are temporary tools, meaningless except as playthings, quaint curiosities, or just more flotsam caught up in the rain-soaked gutter. Along with the soul, they’re to be discarded at the first sign of weather.

Well done! The only piece missing is the secondary theme of Ohio-to-Brooklyn, captured in the tantalizing verse “Leave our red Southern souls/Head for the coast/Leave our red Southern souls/Everything goes.” There are several threads on the Internet devoted to the question “Is Cincinnati a midwestern city or a southern city?” While the consensus slightly leans toward “midwestern,” the electoral maps confirm that Southern Ohio is generally as red as neighboring Kentucky but Cincinnati qualifies as purple. I would also add that the contrast between the “jagged distortion” and the orchestration of cello, violin, viola, trombone and cornet perfectly expresses the uncomfortable tension that lives inside a person of “little faith.”

The next song is about . . . having a kid. Long-time readers are fully aware that I have neither the desire nor the maternal instincts to give birth to a child or adopt one, but my refusal to enter the ranks of motherhood isn’t entirely a matter of wanting to avoid the havoc a kid would wreak on my sex life. I never take on a responsibility unless I’m fully committed to seeing it through and raising a child is an enormous responsibility.

Matt Berninger learned this fundamental truth when he became a parent during the break between Boxer and High Violet. “‘Afraid of Everyone’ is anxiety and paranoia and not knowing how to deal with it, that’s what that song’s about. And desperately wanting to defend yourself and your family from the chaotic forces of evil, and you don’t even know what they are, or who’s right or who’s wrong and what to believe.” (Spinner UK)

I have many favorite Matt Berninger vocals, but his vocal on “Afraid of Everyone” stands out because of its transparency—the feelings are raw and unfiltered, the desperation undeniably genuine. Most songs about parenting are all sweetness-and-light and lean strongly towards the sentimental; “Afraid of Everyone” eschews sentiment in favor of honesty, acknowledging the push-pull between fear and love at the heart of the parental experience:

I defend my family with my orange umbrella
I’m afraid of everyone, I’m afraid of everyone
With my shiny new star-spangled tennis shoes on
I’m afraid of everyone, I’m afraid of everyone
With my kid on my shoulders I try
Not to hurt anybody I like
But I don’t have the drugs to sort
I don’t have the drugs to sort it out, sort it out . . .

Your voice has stolen my soul, soul, soul
Your voice has stolen my soul, soul, soul . . . (repeated several times during the closing build)

In addition to Matt’s stirring lead vocal, the vocal contributions of frequent collaborator Sufjan Stevens also stand out, a cascade of harmonic swoops and spot harmonies that give the song a patina of beautiful melancholy.

We return to the Buckeye State for a fuller treatment of the experience of leaving one’s place of origin and finding a new home where you don’t feel quite at home. Most of the band members weighed in on “Bloodbuzz Ohio” in a piece featured on Uncut Magazine, so let’s start there:

  • Berninger: “It’s about being stuck between an old version of yourself and the one you’re becoming. I was trying to shed my skin. That’s what the first line about lifting up my shirt means to me. I definitely didn’t feel like the same person I used to be. I didn’t feel like an Ohioan anymore and I definitely was not a New Yorker. I was married with a baby, living in Brooklyn, which was still a foreign land to me, and on the verge of becoming a rockstar if I didn’t blow it.”
  • Aaron Dessner: “To me it was a lament, an existential nostalgic love song about where we’re from, about family and the way America is so frayed and divided. So you can be family in blood but estranged because of social values. Obama had just gotten in, but we were coming out of the Bush years and the financial crisis had meant people had worked their whole life and watched their savings just disappear. Hence ‘I still owe money to the money to the money I owe’.”
  • Scott Devendorf: “There’s a homesickness to the song. We’re a band from Ohio that formed in New York. So we were channeling the feeling of being away from a place you knew in another life.”

Starting in the late 90s, Brooklyn became something of a music mecca for indie musicians. Having spent some time in both Cincinnati and Brooklyn, I can understand the culture shock the band members must have experienced. On a personal level, I relate most to Matt’s comment that Brooklyn was “still a foreign land to me,” because that’s what Seattle felt like to me when I moved there from San Francisco. The two cities may appear to be alike, but there were many cultural assumptions I brought with me from The City that simply didn’t apply to life in Seattle. (Fact: I never went to a restaurant in Seattle where I wasn’t the best-dressed person in the joint.) Matt explained the term “bloodbuzz” as “like something about like your history or family or what’s in your blood,” and for most people, the bloodbuzz comes from the culture and family of your origins. Part of me will always be a San Franciscan in the era from 1981-2006.

The music is marked by another strong build blending orchestral textures with rough guitar, but the star of this show is Bryan Devendorf, who provides the bulk of the song’s intense forward movement in a start-to-finish display of virtuoso drumming. The contrast between Bryan’s fervent, high-speed beats and the steady held notes from the string section creates a fascinating backdrop for Matt’s restrained vocal, which carries with it a tone somewhere between detachment and disappointment as he revisits his old stomping grounds. The rising tide of music stops briefly for the first line of the third verse, where Matt reflects on the experience of going home:

I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees
I never married but Ohio don’t remember me
I still owe money to the money, to the money I owe
I never thought about love when I thought about home
I still owe money to the money, to the money I owe
The floors are falling out from everybody I know

The combination of those floors falling out due to the collapse of the housing bubble and the strange obliviousness of the Democrats to the suffering taking place in the Rust Belt would eventually form the great divide that gave us Donald Trump. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” was understandably the first single from the album and did fairly well on the charts, but apparently no one thought to give Obama or Hillary a copy.

“Lemonworld” adds a touch of lightness and a bit of whimsy to the mix, a song Matt described as “basically a dirty song about my wife.” Of all the songs on High Violet, “Lemonworld” is the one best suited for a group sing-a-long, assuming your acoustic guitarist remembered to bring a capo and place it on the first fret so they don’t have to deal with the awkwardness of a song in A#. The chorus is easy to remember and has plenty of doo-doo-doo-doo’s for those who drank too much. You will need at least one sober person to take the verses, which lack the repeated lines you might have come to expect in a song by the National. This shouldn’t present much of a problem because lines like “This pricey stuff makes me dizzy/I guess I’ve always been a delicate man” and “Lay me on the table, put flowers in my mouth/And we can say that we invented a summer lovin’ torture party” are certainly memorable. Go for it!

“Runaway” may be “the most understated, spacious song on the album” according to Aaron Dessner, but despite its lovely combination of arpeggiated guitar and beautifully arranged horns, the meandering lyrics fail to justify the five-and-a-half minutes of recording time. The song could be about climate change . . . or a relationship gone sour . . . or who knows?

“Conversation 16” began life as “Romantic Comedy,” but as the tale unfolds we find that it’s really a romantic dark comedy and about as far away from Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as you can get. The male half of the heterosexual marriage serves as the narrator, and in the process of narration reveals aspects of his personality that he has (probably wisely) kept secret from his wife. The first verse gives us the immediate impression that the parents are utterly incompetent and indifferent to their children, but in a surprising twist, the narrator reveals dark thoughts that a RomCom dad would never admit:

I think the kids are in trouble
Do not know what all the troubles are for
Give them ice for their fevers
You’re the only thing I ever want anymore
Live on coffee and flowers
Try not to wonder what the weather will be
I figured out what we’re missing
I tell you miserable things after you are asleep

In the chorus, the narrator tries to blame life in the big city as the cause of their discontent (“Now we’ll leave the silver city ’cause all the silver girls/Gave us black dreams”) but the next verse reveals that the real problem is that their marriage is a show marriage designed to project marital bliss to the watching world. Unfortunately, the dark feelings bubbling underneath the narrator’s presentation lead to a faux pas which can only be corrected by staging ménage à deux version of a scene from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita—while making sure their friends are are paying attention:

It’s a Hollywood summer
You’d never believe the shitty thoughts I think
Meet our friends out for dinner
When I said what I said, I didn’t mean anything
We belong in a movie
Try to hold it together ’til our friends are gone
We should swim in a fountain
Do not want to disappoint anyone

At this point, we’re pretty convinced that both man and wife are hopelessly not in love, and while the hubby seems to have a few loose screws, he’s no more neurotic than the rest of us. That perception is blown sky-high as the direction shifts from Fellini to George A. Romero:

I was afraid, I’d eat your brains
I was afraid, I’d eat your brains
‘Cause I’m evil
‘Cause I’m evil

Well! I know that it’s common to refer to people who mindlessly conform to social expectations as zombies, but I wasn’t expecting one of the zombies to admit it! The narrator seems to pooh-pooh that admission in the next verse, where he describes himself as a “confident liar,” but in the following line uses a threat of suicide in a pathetic attempt to gain sympathy: “Had my head in the oven so you’d know where I’ll be.” The pathos continues with his “poor me” apology that he’s lousy at romance and in the sack, but he assures his wife that “You’re the only thing I ever want anymore,” because downtrodden women always think it’s their fault if the guy can’t come up with a hard one.

I’m thinking “dark romantic farce” might be a better description of “Conversation 16,” and I will admit that the song does tickle my funny bone. The music has a certain melodramatic flavor, accentuated by the strong bottom sound of a bassoon and the seven-part choral vocal designed and performed by Arcade Fire’s Richie Reed Parry. The Devendorf brothers keep things moving with their unsurprisingly stellar rhythmic contributions, and I get the distinct impression that Matt really enjoyed playing the part of the wannabe zombie.

“England” is a rather bitter reminiscence of a long-lost love, a failed long-distance relationship, or both. She “must be somewhere in London . . . loving your life in the rain”; he’s in a “Los Angeles cathedral” where “Minor singin’ airheads sing for me.” The lyrics hint at a dramatic life change for her, as she “Put an ocean and a river between everybody else/Between everything, yourself and home.” In this situation, “home” means the home where they once lived together, now transformed into an unbearable place for him (“Afraid of the house spend the night with the sinners/Afraid of the house ’cause they’re desperate to entertain”). The music has a certain stateliness about it, a mood reinforced by Thomas Bartlett’s piano contribution and the chamber strings. While the arrangement is solid (except for the out-of-place rough guitar that appears in spots) and I like the song, I’m not sure it was a good fit for the album from a thematic perspective.

There’s no doubt about fit when it comes to the closing song, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” though the Berningerese title may baffle the uninitiated. “Vanderlyle” is the first name of the character depicted in the song, the result of Matt’s painstaking search for a name with a cadence that echoed “Pennyroyal” from Nirvana’s “Pennyroyal Tea.” The character’s full name is Vanderlyle Crybaby, for reasons that will become apparent shortly. That leaves “Geeks,” which Matt added to the title “because a lot of people thought that I was saying ‘geese.'” I have no reason to doubt his explanation, but it glides over the fact that geeks are core to the song’s meaning.

So, let’s talk geeks. “The word geek is a slang term originally used to describe eccentric or non-mainstream people; in current use, the word typically connotes an expert or enthusiast obsessed with a hobby or intellectual pursuit. In the past, it had a generally pejorative meaning of a ‘peculiar person, especially one who is perceived to be overly intellectual, unfashionable, boring, or socially awkward’. In the 21st century, it was reclaimed and used by many people, especially members of some fandoms, as a positive term.” (Wikipedia)

The article’s author did a nice job but should have taken one more step to tie it all together and another step to say the unsaid. “Geek” is a positive term because geeks have embraced their perceived eccentric, non-mainstream orientation in the same way the formerly pejorative term “queers” has been embraced by the gay community. “Yeah, I’m different and proud of it!” What’s unsaid is that geeks are generally perceived to lack emotional intelligence—they’re so obsessed with their computers, hobbies and intellectual pursuits that the emotions of others are experienced as unnecessary noise and many of their own emotions are suppressed or simply too complex to communicate.

And just because geeks and queers have embraced their non-mainstream orientation doesn’t mean that they don’t experience the pain that comes with that embrace, the pain that comes from daring to be different.

We’re introduced to the main character with two measures of somber strings bowing held notes and a low-register piano establishing a slow waltz. In a stunning display of poetic economy, Berninger paints a clear picture of Vanderlyle in a few brief phrases:

Leave your home
Change your name
Live alone
Eat your cake

We can infer that Vanderlyle sought a clean break from both an environment that was alien to him and the identity he faked in that environment. Now he finds himself alone in unfamiliar settings, and the ironic line “eat your cake” implies that he is unable to “eat his cake and have it, too.” This perception is confirmed in the first rendition of the chorus, where the narrator (possibly an acquaintance) empathizes with his plight and urges him to let the pain come out—an empathy reflected just as strongly in the rising strings and vocal harmony that accompany Matt’s heartfelt vocal:

Vanderlyle Crybaby cry
Oh, the water’s a-rising
There’s still no surprising you
Vanderlyle Crybaby cry
Man, it’s all been forgiven
Swans are a-swimmin’

My take is that “Man, it’s all been forgiven” is in response to Vanderlyle’s feeling that he fucked up by leaving the safety of the known for the uncertainty of the unknown; he’s a human being in desperate need of the catharsis expressed in a good cry. The narrator then adds, “I’ll explain everything to the geeks,” which tells us three things: that Vanderlyle is a geek himself; that he’s worried about the reaction of his peers if he reveals his emotions; and that the narrator has his back.

At this point, the music settles into a more clearly defined waltz thanks to Bryan’s subtle drumming and the addition of a few more layers (strings, acoustic guitar and bowed electric guitar). The narrator offers additional comfort, repeating the couplet “All the very best of us/String ourselves up for love” four times. The implication is that the cause of Vanderlyle’s relocation involved a failed relationship. Some have interpreted “string ourselves up” as a hanging, but I think “stringing the Christmas lights” is closer to the truth. We all try to make ourselves attractive to a potential lover, but there’s always the risk that that “stringing up” will fail to impress the other or compromise our integrity by presenting a “false self.” The second version of this verse reads “Hanging from/Chandeliers/Same small world/At your heels,” which seems to confirm the false self hypothesis.

All I know is this: by the time we arrive at the final rendition of the chorus and the achingly beautiful music has swelled to its peak, I can’t help but let it all out in tears. I would certainly characterize “Vanderlyle Crybaby Cry” as a great song, but that’s my personal opinion, not a critical evaluation. As is often the case, we define a particular song as “great”  because it reminds us of an emotionally-packed experience in our own lives, and I can’t listen to this song without going back to my decision to leave the United States and move to France. Like Vanderlye, I left my home and changed my name, adopting my French mother’s maiden name as an act of commitment to my new life. And though I’d been to Paris many times, my first few weeks there were filled with anxiety and a deep uneasiness (though my catharsis came from an entirely different source). After listening to the frequently difficult but truthful depictions of life in our fucked-up world that fill High Violet, I will remain eternally grateful to the National for closing the album with an empathetic message that gave listeners the opportunity to achieve catharsis.

During my research, I read hundreds of comments from listeners who had also experienced catharsis while listening to the songs on High Violet. Those listeners frequently described their personal favorite as “beautiful.”

If you’re wondering how an album immersed in anxiety, relationship difficulties, disconnection from home and the belief that all is not right in the world can be beautiful, you might want to take a minute to reconnect with John Keats. Truth can beautiful even when the truth is ugly; the Grecian urn contained images of “happy love” and cruel sacrifice. Artists often express truths that we mere mortals find elusive, and when we experience truth as expressed through art—whether in music, poetry, theatre or the visual arts—it is a beautiful experience indeed.

I have no hesitation whatsoever in calling High Violet a beautiful album.

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