Brooklyn quintet the National has found a balance on their fifth album, High Violet, that acts like Interpol and Editors have yet to find: a confident, seamless integration of much-too-obvious influences into their own distinctive sound. The loving nods to Springsteen and Joy Division remain—vocalist Matt Berninger’s half-slurred, warm baritone on “Anyone’s Ghost” simultaneously conjures up the Boss and Ian Curtis—but are far less fumbling or mechanical than on 2007’s monotonous Boxer.
Much of that change is owed to the beauty of Berninger’s emerging sensitivity, where the eyebrow-raised, deadpan wisecracking of Boxer‘s “Mistaken for Strangers” and “Fake Empire” is replaced by dark self-deprecation. “You never believe the shitty thoughts I think,” Berninger whispers on “Conversation 16” before half-sarcastically moaning “I’m evil” and “I’m a confident liar” to the strains of a swooning, haunting choir. There’s a wry beauty in subtle morbidity, and the National has struck it on High Violet. Indeed, the “high” in the album’s title might as well refer to the band’s elevation of human flaw and suffering into a lofty, delicate art form, as tracks like the pulsing, stuttering “Lemonworld” and prodding burner “Runaway” clearly demonstrate the band’s evolution in crafting darkly astute, despairing music.
What truly elevates High Violet, however, is the National’s skillful navigation away from Boxer‘s weighty production style. For all its raw brilliance, that album was at times difficult to digest, stuffed to the brim with bleeding soundscapes and muddy tunnel reverb. High Violet is an expertly handled balancing of the airy and the dense, and nowhere is that better exemplified than on the triumphant “England.” Building the song gracefully with an ever-expanding intensity, the band clearly recognizes that less is more, limiting the track’s lead players to a light scattering of piano, bubbling drums, and the naked mutterings of Berninger’s enunciation-challenged grumble: “I don’t even think to make corrections,” he sings, perhaps aware of the effortlessly tragic sound the National has so perfectly achieved here.