Finally caught up with this album from last year and it’s really a masterpiece. It isn’t anything like an evolution of The National’s sound; they’re clearly sticking with what works for them. That doesn’t bother me since it works so darn well. This album is really a deeply evocative, emotionally striking journey into, or through or around, a sort of pained dissatisfaction. At times, it’s despairing. At other times, it’s grief stricken. At still others, it finds a quiet, slightly hopeful tone, though not very often. This isn’t the album for you if you’re into hard-rockin’, high energy songs. The songs here are really all laments of one kind or another, mostly about personal failure, and they come in dark minor keys, with somber, moody arrangements and languid, if surprisingly solid, beats. The lyrics are cynical and bitter, wearily sung in a dark baritone. It’s a dark album, one of the darkest I’ve heard since Dylan’s Time Out of Mind actually, and that album remains a personal touchstone for me. But it’s the loveliness of these songs that carries the album through and makes it more than just a naval gazing suicide note set to music. The melodies are really evocative and the arrangements, while somber, find moments of real beauty. I would really say every song on this album is a four star song, I think. If I had to pick a few, I’d look at the piano based Heavenfaced, the surprisingly rousing Don’t Swallow the Cap, and the grim, pained Humiliation. Maybe my favorite is Pink Rabbits, a song of despair and sorrow with a gorgeous melody. Anyway, it’s an album that really spoke to me and I loved it more every time I heard it through. The National is reaching toward the human condition here and the reach isn’t annoying. And the album succeeds a lot at capturing absolute truth: “It wasn’t like a river/It was more like a sea/I didn’t ask for this pain/It just came over me.” Highly recommended. 4 stars.
tl;dr – dark, moody album explores depression, dissatisfaction and loneliness with a sharpness and beauty that catapults it past mopey shoegazing and into the realm of genuine masterpiece; 4 stars.