If Matt Berninger were around 50 years ago, he could have been Frank Sinatra, though not the Frank Sinatra you’re thinking about. He wouldn’t be “Fly Me To The Moon” Sinatra, but The Wee Small Hours Sinatra. Buried amongst the happy love songs was a record that embodied life after the romance, in which Sinatra lives his life without love, and what it does to him when he loses that lovin’ feeling. Needless to say, if you’ve ever heard its opener, “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning,” you know that our hero doesn’t take very well to it; he smokes himself silly and drinks himself into, if he’s very lucky, an uneasy sleep.
“Sorrow found me when I was young/Sorrow waited, sorrow won,” Berninger sings on the second track of High Violet, aptly titled “Sorrow.” Where Sinatra asked, “Can we be friends?” Berninger instead goes for a simple plea: “Don’t leave my half a heart alone.” High Violet is a record that couldn’t have been born out of any other emotion, and is in a way an ode to sadness, and like Sinatra dancing around the subject of melancholy leading up to The Wee Small Hours, The National has unquestionably toyed with the topic before, but never in such a stunning way. “I can’t fall asleep without a little help,” Berninger crows partway through the opener, “Terrible Love,” and as the orchestra parts, he yelps for the first time since Alligator: “It takes an ocean not to break.”
Since Boxer, The National has reclaimed a lot of what made Alligator wonderful: while Boxer was a timid and beautiful still-of-night album (see: “Fake Empire,” “Racing Like A Pro”), High Violet blends that with the stewing, swimming chaos that scattered the more essential tracks from Alligator, like the ever-classic “Mr. November” and the underappreciated “Karen.” It’s all built on being alone, and realizing exactly what you’ve done to fuck up your life as much as you have. In the space between Boxer and High Violet, Berninger has learned that he doesn’t necessarily have to be as veiled about this depression, proven on “Little Faith,” when he says one of the most telling things he’s said to date: “All our lonely kicks are getting harder to find.” A song later, we find him screaming again, “I don’t have the drugs to sort it out.” But in the end, he almost steps outside his entire life and states one hard truth that was never quite so simple until he said it in “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”: “All the very best of us string ourselves up for love.”
The relationship that The National have with sadness and depression has always been one of the more interesting aspects of the band. Five years ago, he managed to earnestly scream that he wouldn’t fuck us over, and though it may have really been a song about John Kerry, it served as a succinct and precise statement about what we’re dealing with: “You may think I’m great, but have you seen what I’m up against?” High Violet does not, in James Murphy’s words, string you along with all of that pretense; he lets it all show here. “You need something to believe in your heart of hearts, you need something to wear on your sleeve of sleeves,” Berninger sang an album ago on “Mistaken For Strangers,” one of the more intriguing lines on that particular record, and one the complements this album perfectly. Here, he’s following that line to a T, and wearing his missteps out in the open as much as possible, no matter how bad it might look.