The National Can't Write Happy Songs
Fights happen—in relationships of family, politics, love and, well, the inner workings of a band. And it's no big secret that Cincinnati/Brooklyn's The National comprises two sets of actual brothers (Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Bryan and Scott Devendorf) along with frontman Matt Berninger. But with the band's latest release, High Violet, universal themes of love and tension—between all varieties of brothers, mind you—ring out stronger than on any of their past four albums.
According to bassist Scott Devendorf, even the album's title—created by Berninger and his wife Carin Besser at some point during the last days of recording—is a combined reference to both high anxiety or amplified emotional blues and the government (which some might call the ultimate fraternity) threat-level system.
"[We were] trying to make a really hopeful record or something—a happy record—but it's really dark in a lot of ways," Devendorf says, laughing, it would seem, at how different the outcome is from the intention. "[High Violet was] also supposed to be kind of funny, and it was supposed to be characters kind of trying to figure out things in their lives which is sort of, I guess, the universal theme of our band or something."
Even as Devendorf feigns resignation to the band's natural tendency to venture into melancholy over farce—and even if they tap into darker places than any of them planned—it's clear that The National wear both lyrical and instrumental drama very well. Through some sonic costume, they've created their (very realistic) agonizing protagonist.
As Devendorf reviews the last three releases aloud, he essentially summarizes the life and times of the invisible bandmate—someone with whom long-time fans have suffered trials and for whom new fans will celebrate growth.
"Alligator was sort of like this guy off in the street, whatever, dating," he says. "There's a lot of night references, sort of being out at bars or clubs. Boxer's the stately, like, build-a-relationship record, and [High Violet] is, I think, guy-person-whatever in a relationship trying to figure out the intricacies of day-to-day life sort of thing."
He makes note as well that, while social anxiety has always been prevalent, it's in full force on the newest offering. "Conversation 16" and "Anyone's Ghost" are perfect examples. While proving first-listen favorites with infectiously moody post-punk hooks, both are examinations of those tense, tedious and completely neurotic battles absolutely everyone has had at least once with a mate or with themselves—self-doubting, fretful love.
Creating a soundtrack, essentially, for an Everyman may continue to gain the band the praise of critics and fans, but it's not the stuff from which bliss is made.
"We definitely challenge each other," Devendorf says. "Our recording process is probably on a more painful side of experiences."
He goes on to liken the band's creative and studio time to both chess matches and United Nations negotiations. Specifically, he offers, it's like the talks between three warring countries and two peacemaking ones. Devendorf includes himself in the latter bunch.
"You know, it's like brothers trying to deal with anything," he says.
It's quite clear that in this case he means "brothers" in that bandspeak way, honoring more than the two DNA-sharing sets.
The UN reference isn't lost either, though, what with High Violet claiming one of The National's most political songs to date, "Afraid of Everyone." Devendorf explains that on the surface it's a man bowled over by raising a family and caring for friends. But, deeper, it takes on the heightened discord of politics—left and right, red and blue, all fighting. Listening with either a fatherly or presidential figure in mind, that troubling, quasi post-partum feeling of needing to protect and make happy—but being neither protected nor happy yourself—rings true, unforced and totally relatable.
It's difficult to say how The National aimed to make a "light" album, but instead managed to birth yet another incredibly cohesive album of songs about life's uncertainties and stresses—and one that has somehow actually attracted more fans to its sounds.
Most people fight to avoid thinking of such things, and yet with High Violet, The National win the battle, drawing in people—even the band themselves—to share the struggles. Perhaps the draw is schadenfreude. More so, though, it seems like some kind of brotherly love.
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