The National’s singer Matt Berninger seems to have a thing for shouldering his burdens: in “All the Wine,” from the band’s 2005 record Alligator, a hymn to the narcissism and perceived invulnerability of a certain kind of young manhood (“so sorry, but the motorcade will have to go around me this time,” he deadpans), he boasts that he can carry the “dollhouse safe on my shoulders.” Five years and two albums later, it’s his kid on his shoulders, and he’s considering fending off strangers with his umbrella: “I’m afraid of everyone,” he sings, “and I don’t have the drugs to sort it out.”
Rock music is lousy with songs that commemorate the frenzy of youth, but there are fewer records about the arguably more terrifying state of reaching full adulthood. Having chronicled his fear of artistic and romantic failure (on Alligator) and life during wartime (Boxer), High Violet finds Berninger with the same old personal instability and global fears intact, seemingly ratcheted up by having more to defend. When he says “the kids are in trouble,” it turns out they have fevers that need to be iced; cities are places to haunt while wearing headphones and to flee (“leave the silver cities to all the silver girls who gave us black dreams”). Berninger’s baritone warms up his chilly lyrics (some co-written with now-wife Carin Besser, until recently a fiction editor at the New Yorker), showcased against instrumentation every bit as intricate, experimental, and artful as his lyrics. Jittery, paranoid, and hauntingly beautiful, this is a record that will reward close listening for years to come.