Given that we're at the transition from one decade to the next, it shouldn't surprise anyone that what is arguably the most popular genre of rock music at present is slowly but surely dying out. Indie heroes have slowly but surely fallen to the wayside, while others rise to take their place and, sadly, don't always quite measure up. The Strokes, Interpol, the Shins, even the Arcade Fire (with a great single in The Suburbs but three other not-so-great ones), all hugely influential artists, have succumbed to irrelevance. And with flash-in-the-pan subgenres like lo-fi surf rock or chillwave dissipating as quickly as they arrive, it's not terribly difficult to lose faith in indie music altogether. Which is precisely why a band like the National is so important - they're one of the few acts around who have not only have retained their relevancy, but have continually progressed in every regard to a remarkable degree, particularly since ultimately very little has changed. It's a staggering achievement, considering the stature of 2007's Boxer, but the Brooklyn collective's latest, High Violet, is their best album yet.
The National's latest serves as the logical progression from their last record; where Boxer was occupied with the loss of youth and reluctantly accepting adulthood, High Violet tackles making it through that adulthood. The songs still have that high relatability, but the group manages to sound even sadder this time around than they have in the past. The crumbling relationships (Little Faith, Runaway) described sound more hopeless, the anxiety (Sorrow, Afraid of Everyone) sounds more pressing, but all expressed with a subdued and reflective sadness, almost as if feeling too defeated to protest. Lead single Bloodbuzz Ohio absolutely nails the sharp feeling of guilt and debt, while Lemonworld falls somewhere in the middle, embracing guilt, longing, and loss.
A chief reason for how well all this is expressed is Matt Berninger's intensely emotive baritone. Sometimes it's not even the lyrics so much as the way he sings it; in songs like England, for example, many lines prove tremendously difficult to decipher. For many bands, this would be an irritating handicap, and the vocal delivery would be written off as tiresome mumbling. There's so much more to it though - Berninger's voice gives off such a great deal of emotion, and the melody in his vocal pattern along with the progressively intense strings and horn (which lead to a stunning climax) provides all the feeling that the song could possibly need. Which brings me to the growth the group has shown in the musical composition as well; brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner provide not only more distinct guitar here than on previous efforts, but blend in horns, strings, and piano to a near-cinematic yet tasteful extent. They also provide some downright haunting vocal harmonizing, most prevalent on Anyone's Ghost and Conversation 16.
High Violet proves to be not only well worth the wait, but a more than worthy follow up to the highly regarded Boxer. The emotion is intense, the musicianship outstanding, and while the album in its entirety isn't quite as easy to sink into as Boxer was, it may actually be more rewarding. The National isn't just a gem in a dying genre, they're a unique band who belong to a rare breed of musicans who can continually evolve without fail.