With one of their songs featured in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, not to mention being acclaimed as America’s best band, these are good times to be in The National. Not that you’d know it from their demeneaour both on record and on their mug shots depicted in the cover art. That’s part of the charm though; this is a band that trades on adult neuroses and failings and turns them into songs which veer between the bleak and the euphoric.
The beginning isn’t too promising. ‘Terrible Love’ ominously aims for the “Big Music” approach in keeping with the baffling media surge which has made The Arcade Fire such a success. Backing vocals and crashing drums overpower Matt Berninger’s wounded vocals and the piano. It is of some relief to report that ‘High Violet’ improves after that. ‘Anyone’s Ghost’ is the first great song; thanks to its murky production and sinister melody. ‘Little Faith’ features Berninger’s vocal at its most brooding, lines like “We’ll play nuns versus priests until somebody dies” summoning up typically seedy pictures from the frontman’s mind. On ‘Afraid Of Everyone’ they truly come in to their own. Set to the glummest of glum rock guitars, the backing vocals this time soar on a song which doesn’t actually require a chorus.
Other tracks tread a similar pattern of Berninger’s doleful delivery and the band’s doomy rhythms, given a studio polish which reveals their stadium-sized ambitions. On a record which is notable for its consistently good moments rather than outstanding ones, notable mentions go to ‘Conversation 16’ which possesses a rattling intensity whilst ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ provides an emotional send-off.
The National are canny enough to incorporate both British and American influences in their music with nods to both English post-punk and the passion of artists like Springsteen. I would refute ‘High Violet’ is better track by track than 2005’s ‘Alligator’ but there are certainly worse candidates for the “Best Band In America” title.
The Walkmen, The Milling Gowns, The Arcade Fire