The National's lyricist and lead singer, Matt Berninger, has a gift for summarising the desperation of life. Not the epic, Arcade Fire-type, where the world is crashing down on us, nor the Joy Division brand, where everything is miserable. His lyrics, combined with his simple, no-frills delivery, make for quietly devastating statements. Everywhere. And they are, I think, what ultimately make The National special.
The music is great, and I wouldn't call The National a lyric man's band, but everyone has to admit that The National are kind of boring. They make it work, and that in itself is remarkable, because I've heard a thousand bands that sound like them, but none of them are as good. The Dessner twins, responsible for the lion's share of the music on every National album, are reliable. I do not focus on their contributions when I listen to National albums, but I'm trying to balance out my presentation so as not to overlook them. They construct beautiful tracks, and over the last three albums, they've crafted a unique sound for the band. Throughout High Violet's eleven songs, The National sound like no band except The National, which is an impressive thing.
But my attention is on Berninger. During "Conversaton 16," he gently follows up the chorus of "Cos I'm evil" with a simple statement of "I'm a confident liar." He sounds like he dislikes himself as much as the rest of us, but, unlike most singers, he doesn't make the mistake of feeling special for it. It's difficult to quantify, or to relate properly, but it's really an astonishing thing. "I won't be no runaway, cos I won't run," Berninger insists on "Runaway." You can read it one of two ways: The narrator isn't a coward, or the narrator is just too tired to bother fleeing. I always read it the second way, but the ambiguity is what makes it work so well.
This brings us to the album's best track, standing out head-and-shoulders above a set of songs that already stand out head-and-shoulders above most other music of late: "Bloodbuzz Ohio." It is, like "Mistaken for Strangers," the perfect The National song. Peculiarly propulsive drumming beneath a fairly gentle track, and lyric nuggets everywhere. "I still owe money to the money to the money I owe,/ I never thought about love when I thought about home." It may not read like much, but the effect is indescribable. I've listened to this song easily twenty times since last Wednesday, and it hasn't lost any of its effect. It is at once uplifting and humbling. It is massive but remains intimate. "I never married, but Ohio don't remember me." It is the perfection of Berninger's persona, of The National's gently surging sound, and it's the best song you'll hear all year. "Bloodbuzz Ohio" is a classic. And, like their last album, Boxer, so is this album.
For a small band from New York, The National have become the forerunners in making Music that Matters. It's a tricky thing to do, and they handle it brilliantly. U2 have been trying to make an album that feels this good for the last 20 years.