During The National’s five-year reign as the go-to sad-sack white-guy guitar band for America’s rock-critic constituency, singer Matt Berninger has been compared to several other critical darlings, including Leonard Cohen (for his low, rumbling croon), Bruce Springsteen (for his slice-of-life vignettes about regular people), and Tom Waits (for his drunkard’s posing). Here’s a new one: Woody Allen. He might not be funny, but on the last two National albums, Alligator and Boxer, Berninger demonstrated a Woody-esque knack for getting inside the heads of over-educated and spiritually malnourished urbanites, charting the growing disaffection that comes when the weight of adulthood begins to crowd out the emptiness of prolonged adolescence.
Allen’s characters typically find a way to get over themselves over the course of a three-act film; for The National, it’s taken three albums. On High Violet, the band’s fifth overall, Berninger opens up like never before, using apocalyptic images of floods, bee swarms, and even brain-eating zombies to express the fear of a man who now must put a wife and young child ahead of himself. The music has expanded along with him, incorporating a swelling, almost symphonic mix of strings and horns into quietly epic songs that are more emotionally immediate than anything the band has ever done.
Less outwardly aggressive than even the relatively restrained Boxer, and yet big and grand enough to fill the large theaters The National finally occupy after spending a decade slowly building an audience, High Violet is carefully considered without being labored, richly detailed without being fussy. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Anyone’s Ghost” satisfy the band’s quota of driving, brooding pop songs, but the breathtaking “England” rises to an unprecedented climax that puts the band squarely in Arcade Fire territory. “Afraid Of Everyone” is another landmark for The National, with Berninger taking on a potentially trite subject—being a new father—and making listeners feel the sledgehammer pounding of a scared (but committed) man’s heart. With High Violet, The National has graduated from being a critic’s band. Now it belongs to everyone.