One can find easy metaphor for the folly of youth in "clumsy footing" but truth be told, we never become mountain goat steady, perched up on the crags of the hills we inhabit. We just get better shoes and learn to wobble less.
The National captured the clumsy footing of being a man in love, at work, in crisis on Alligator, a record that five years later still gives me the shivers. With High Violet I don't really feel the cold because I somewhere along the way bought a proper jacket and quit fighting the climate. The band has progressed into a catalog-perfect structure. The songs are now so perfectly formed you want to order one for your head. Imaging how good your fragile sorrow will look all "cover me in rag and bones" in their song "Sorrow." You can face anyone all wrapped up in "Afraid of Everyone" as if their anxieties have been tightened and perfected to form anti-anxieties, salves for the burns they depict.
Like their closest comparisons in terms of career arc, Radiohead, the National have isolated their strain of personal angst into an almost universal, even sexy patois. "Anyone's Ghost" is as deliciously dour as all their material tends to be, but I can see the girls swaying to it, the lovelorn swept up like ashes in the lightest breeze. The songs contain gorgeous vestibules of little noises like the grinding at the beginning of "Little Faith" while elsewhere offering vast canvases upon which Matt Berninger's baritone can be boldly laid out (see "Bloodbuzz Ohio"). He's not out in the street bellowing to no-one about being Mr. November anymore; instead he's striding in the room with mustered confidence, a choked control, and looking you square in the face.
I don't know what he's going on about, but then, when do you when faced with a soul mid-process in dejection? "You and your sister live in a lemonworld" - is he saying theirs is sharp and fresh, lemon-scented or busted and disappointing, like the car sense of "lemon"? It doesn't really matter, you know when he goes "da da da da" in the chorus, it feels like "dot dot dot dot" ellipses, nervous tapping, busy signal, picking at frayed strings that bind us.
"Runaway" is unabashed lighter-swaying, power ballad glory, except maybe with the power siphoned off. "I won't be no runaway because I won't run." "We got another thing coming undone." "What makes you think I enjoy being left for the flood." Double downer/entendre against that orchestra of sunrise-after-the-prom horns is too much. It's the class song of the damned. Sure, it plays to form, just like how a 60-yard run for a touchdown does, when that girl finally kisses you at that moment. The world has conspired for this dramatic moment to happen and our humanity demands were meet that opportunity with our hearts and souls. So what if High Violet gets a little corny at times, even ridiculous on "Conversation 16" where he goes "I was afraid I'd eat your brains/Cuz' I'm evil." Eat my brains! I totally won't need them in the perfect moment. I'll just heed gravity's pull.
That's where the National is at, up on those cliffs to which they so recently clung and precipices from which they leapt, standing resolute, composed and maybe, even in the era of accepted, even forced uncertainty, wise. Not bad for a mopey little rock band.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
The Review of the Year of Things #1: Jason Lewis surveys the years' great albums and noting so many, compartmentalized, as men do. So, here, albums by those so profoundly impacted by Death