Talking Music: Reflections & Recommendations by Admohr

Explaining High Violet

Posted in Uncategorized by admohr on May 9, 2010

High Violet, the latest LP from The National has had a powerful, moving effect on me as a listener from even my initial encounters and tonight as I found myself unable to fall asleep I set out to completely immerse myself in this performance and actually try to write about these latest expressions from a band whose total sonic experience, vocals & conviction have always had a shaking effect on me throughout their entire album career. Specifically, I wanted to write about what I thought made High Violet such an emotive experience for the listener, and why anyone else with an hour to spare shouldn’t just listen to High Violet, but should put their lives on hold for an hour and pull on headphones in a dark room and actively listen as if their well-being depended on an outcome found only in the lyrics. Why I felt moved to write, I guess is just because sometimes a performance or just a moment of expression (in art or in life) has such a profound impact with a person, that this person essentially feels obligated to capture that impact via some means so that not only can one share that experience, but so that one can forever revisit the way one’s soul was engaged in a moment of emotion and perhaps how one’s life was legitimately marked at that very moment – a moment capable of defining certain life experiences encountered forever afterward. I listen to music performances primarily just as an appreciation of artistic expression, but ultimately I am forever in search of those moments that inspire me so drastically that these performances define the context of the life I’m living. The defining of this context can be as significant as self-therapy in the external affirmation of complex emotions – or it can just be the equivalent of emotional scrapbooking when one’s soul is not in flux & seemingly not in crisis. The tricky part about the moments when actively defining meaning or significance in your life though, is that you don’t know just how critical this particular moment is until you’ve basically already figured out whether that particular point impacted you or not. You’ll never hear an album the same once you’ve associated it with an experience, a moment, or an emotion in your life – but you’ll never associate that performance with that component of your life until you’ve already pretty much figured out what that component of your life actually meant to you. It’s so complicated.

What was moving me while I listened to High Violet tonight was that I couldn’t peg this album yet. On the whole, going around trying to “figure out” every album is not how music is best experienced, but to be fair the National basically inspire this: the band is so convincing in capturing the moments of melancholy the listener can’t help but be motivated to figure out if these particular passages are genuine or ironic, hopeful or resigned. There’s despair in the lyric “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe” but as deflating as those words are in text, Berninger doesn’t necessarily seem too bent out of shape about it, say compared to when Springsteen sings “I’ve got debts that no honest man can pay” which is thematically similar but expressively worlds apart. And “Bloodbuzz Ohio” on the whole represents the band’s sonic performance on High Violet where they seem practically always on the verge of a breakout in noise, yet never actually taking that leap. The great NY Times piece spent considerable time on “Lemonworld” where the band itself truly did not know how to capture the actual sound of this piece and somehow perfectly, this aura of ambiguity overwhelms this particular performance. I legitimately cannot place if this song is beautifully or tragically resigned or maybe if it is even pleasant and hopeful. Its a genuinely loaded experience, and I can think of no greater testament to the band on this particular album performance that they captured these theoretical contradictions into something so overwhelmingly natural. The corollary of this is that no moments on High Violet are even deceptively simple or not-layered: the whole of High Violet draws attention to the more raw & direct moments of Boxer which seem unstable by comparison, and up until this album Boxer was the most controlled & collected performance of the band’s career.

I had decided that the perfect expression of what High Violet was by underscoring what it wasn’t, and I had originally decided this to mean an explanation of the band’s 3rd and greatest LP: Alligator. Alligator is a performance that I consider to be possibly the most influential and meaningful to my life; to me it has always been this incredible collection of pieces capturing a man at the most extreme odds with himself and we somehow gain witness to this breaking down in every little sequence & expression of this album. So I went through the album, jotting down the lyrics & song meanings & moments of expression in each piece that have always had such a profound impression on me and I started to determine that ironically my ideas of what made this performance such a direct & cohesive statement was completely incoherent in the context of any life that wasn’t exactly mine. Berninger’s phrasing & the band’s absolutely loaded & moving sounds have just always made flawless & perfect sense to me: but the lyrics, song meanings & moments that I jotted down failed to do justice these overwhelming feelings I’ve always encountered and it’s not that I question my own feelings about the album – but I did question if anyone was necessarily capable of hearing it the way that I do. I’m moved to remember the time I read a review of the Horse Feathers album Words are Dead – an album that I have been practically moved to tears by what I have thought were some of the most convincing expressions of complete despair & sadness. The review cited moments of joy in certain songs and I remember pondering if it was out of the question that I had a mislabeled album. I tried to validate my feelings with this album once: but even the vocals on much of Words are Dead are practically indecipherable, and again really the most convincing argument I could assemble on behalf of what I felt this album’s expression was: that it just evoked sadness in me. I’m still pretty convinced about this, much like I’m still pretty convinced that Nebraska & Tunnel of Love are albums about mocking hope, and that Separation Sunday was an album about the preservation of hope. I’m still pretty convinced that the Replacements’ Let It Be is this testament to how to live the most passionate life possible so long as you never take yourself too seriously. But each time I try to validate these truths through any means other than just listening to the album – I’m forever frustrated by the fact that I can’t quite find objective evidence to validate what I’m saying. But the thing about understanding the most moving experiences of our lives is that there is nothing objective about it at all: we’re being influenced by this incredible moment, and by no means can anyone else’s experience or analysis validate our own. And maybe it’s just that truly the most meaningful albums of our lives are just occasional miracles that an artist created an impression that resonated so strongly within us that we let that performance tell the story of our life for us. It so happens that these miracles are the means of easily accessible, talented & impressionable songwriting & performance – but they are always ultimately mirrors of the miracles in our own lives. High Violet moves me & there is a power & beauty in the reined & conflicted passion that’s invoked in the listener on this one. And the fact that it leads one to search so inwardly to explain these emotions might really just mean that I haven’t figured everything out just yet.

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