The vaguely optimistic slow dance “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” closes the National’s fifth album, and you can almost see crepe paper falling lazily off the gym wall as it fades, like a welcome exhale, after 45 minutes of gorgeously crafted tension. Simmering more than it strikes, High Violet coaxes you into baroque indie darkness rather than shines bright pop lights.
It’s a familiar journey, with subtle differences: Matt Berninger’s expressive, wounded baritone once defaulted to a murmur or a shout, but on the swooning “England” and the massive, shuddering “Terrible Love,” he finds a comfort zone in between. Maybe “comfort” is the wrong word, because Berninger’s noirish lyrics feel more harrowing than ever.
But the National inevitably make that bleakness sound incredibly seductive and impossibly cool. On the ghostly “Afraid of Everyone,” a family walk in the park descends into a paranoid fantasia, while a chorus of disembodied spirits (and is that a bassoon?) color the slinky “Conversation 16,” which turns the line “I was afraid I’d eat your brains” into an apologetic come-on. Even the catchy, perfect-world hit single “Bloodbuzz Ohio” weds dusky grit to its sticky verses. That’s the National’s insidious brilliance: No other band makes dark and stormy seem like ideal weather.