Album: The National, High Violet (4AD)
Friday 07 May 2010
It used to be the case that Britain was adept at selling a version of American culture back to the Americans – most famously, of course, the recycled R&B with which the Stones and Led Zeppelin became the biggest rock bands on the planet.
But now, the process seems to be working in reverse: British bands struggle to make much of an impression on the American psyche, while all over the musical map, American bands are purloining British modes and marketing them back to us.
The "wyrd folk" of such as Espers, Devendra Banhart and Midlake is clearly rooted in the peculiarly British neo-mediaevalist folk movement of the 1960s; Scissor Sisters' prog-pop is basically just an updated take on Elton John and ELO; and perhaps most distinctively British of all, the melancholy new wave strains created by the likes of Joy Division and The Cure now provide the blueprint for a generation of younger US bands. In the latest example, The National have just sold out the Royal Albert Hall in double-quick time with the most ingenious of Anglophile blends – a burgeoning popularity, which will undoubtedly be reflected in the sales of High Violet, the Brooklyn-based band's fifth album.
Not that The National are at all shy about their transatlantic inspirations: there's even a track here titled "England", possibly a tribute to their spiritual home, though given the fragmentary, elusive nature of the singer Matt Berninger's lyrics, it's hard to say for sure what any of these 11 tracks is about. But he has an unquestionable knack for the kind of coinages that wouldn't sound out of place in British songs: the album's opening gambit, "Terrible love, and I'm walking with spiders", has an insouciant waspishness that's pure Morrissey, while the central formulation of "Sorrow" could be the mission statement of an Ian Curtis or Robert Smith: "Sorrow found me when I was young/ Sorrow waited, and sorrow won".
Musically, The National's trump card is their very un-American sense of restraint. Most of these arrangements don't have the sort of narrative drive or catchy hooks you usually find in rock songs; instead, an itchy little murmur of guitar throbs away at their core, embalmed in sombre strings, while the slightly stilted, mechanistic drum patterns impose a robotic fatalism on the material. An occasional brooding bassoon or bass clarinet might lurk half-hidden beneath a song's surface, or a glimmer of brass illuminate the emotional depths, combining with Berninger's alienated, affectless vocals in a way which recalls Tindersticks. But the pervasive disquiet of a song such as "Terrible Love" just gets deeper and deeper as it progresses, never reaching a cathartic resolution. Likewise, the methodical ratcheting-up of tension in "Afraid of Everyone" proceeds without ever endangering the emotional meniscus with too dramatic a representation of anxiety. It's an impressive achievement overall, offering a masterclass in subtle emotional shading, which none of their current peers, and few of their inspirational influences, could equal.
Download this: Terrible Love; Afraid of Everyone; Sorrow; Runaway
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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