Brooklyn band The National broke through, at least to the rock snob crowd, with 2003's Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. Alligator, released in 2005, and Boxer owned critics' year-end lists, capturing bigger crowds along the way and slots playing major US and European music festivals.
Anticipation for Boxer's follow-up was dialed high, both externally and internally. But there was barely a scrap of a song when The National embarked on the project.
"It was scary. There was nothing in mind, really, except for a few basic limitations we imposed on the music, just to not repeat ourselves," recalled drummer Bryan Devendorf. "It was a blank page and the songs came together organically."
Over a long and slow recording process, The National eventually stitched together guitar riffs and drum beats, melodies and finally lyrics, scrapping and redoing anything that didn't sound just right. The resulting High Violet came nearly a year late, but the band's relaxed pace allowed for nearly endless experimentation and tinkering. The final product is a complex and elegant album, one that's steeped in the lush darkness that's evolved into the band's signature style, but also shines with a more textured sound than previous records.
That same slow and steady development is the story of The National itself, a band of suburban Cincinnati friends who reunited post-college in New York, and let the turbulence of the city pass them by. Rather than chasing trends, the band chased its own sound. A decade later, The National finds itself the subject of near universal acclaim.
Released by 4AD on May 11, High Violet debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard chart, selling 51,000 copies in its first week. Boxer, its predecessor, peaked at 68 the week of its release in 2007, eventually selling 350,000 copies worldwide.
"It's all happened so slowly and naturally that in some ways it's not really at all surprising," said Devendorf about the band's popularity. "But sometimes I step outside myself and see that I'm playing Royal Albert Hall. It's like, 'What are we doing here? We're the gate crashers.'"
The friendships that form The National go back to junior high for Devendorf and twin brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner, who both play guitar. Devendorf's brother Scott plays bass and Scott's college friend Matt Berninger is the singer and lyricist.
"The twins have their own ESP going on, and my brother and I are really able to lock in with each other," said Devendorf. "We've always been able to play together. It's a different level of chemistry. Not that there's no political gamesmanship going on, but we're more free to do what we want to do and understand each other's next moves."
The National has clearly settled into a sound all its own, driven by Berninger's dark and deep baritone, but richly textured with the right flourishes at the right time, horns or strings and tempo or chord shifts that give the songs new energy.
The album was recorded in a studio at Aaron Dessner's Brooklyn home, a no-pressure situation that Devendorf credits with breaking through any number of creative barriers. "It was very relaxed in the beginning and a lot of fun," Devendorf said. "The record does represent what we were going through, the collective group of guys, for the past year. And whether we like it or not, I guess it is our response to the previous record." High Violet was produced by Peter Katis, who has worked with the band ever since its sophomore record, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers.
Thematically, High Violet is an album of songs that are tossed about in the man-versus-self realm, filled with sensations of doubt, loneliness, and sorrow. It's about feeling isolated and alone while at the center of a great bustle, trying to navigate life's daily cycles of disorientation and comfort.
"The title itself suggests anxiety and the pressures of whatever people go through to live life," Devendorf said. "Matt can be elusive and evasive, but I think a lot of the lyrics are true. They're not just fluff, they're expressing how he feels. He's always exploring characters that are somehow composites of real life people he knows, or himself."
Berninger's lyrics are often the spiritual descendents of bands like Joy Division and The Smiths, but on High Violet, they're more in the realm of reflection than angst: Sorrow found me when I was young/Sorrow waited, sorrow won, he sings on "Sorrow," a look back at the romantic side of youthful sorrow.
"A lot of Matt's lyrics stem from his upbringing," Devendorf said. "He went to Catholic school, and while it's not a sheltered life, in an all-boys school, you're not socialized the same way as public school kids."
Part of The National's strength as a band is the ability to tap into how common those outsider feelings can be, and how effectively the band's songs can deliver catharsis as an antidote to that anxiety. "We're suburban kids all the way," Devendorf said. "I've known the twins since I was thirteen years old. We played basketball together and went to school together. There's this family aspect to the band. It makes it seem less surreal."