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Flashback Friday: The National’s “High Violet”

Of course this song came on. As I walked along, nose running, throat scratchy and heart heavy, I had my Spotify on shuffle to distract my mind and the familiar opening sounds of The National‘s Bloodbuzz Ohio began to play. I hadn’t heard the song in ages, and it’s so weighted with feeling and experience that it physically stopped me in my tracks. I’d been so distracted thinking through everything the way I do in any situation, wringing my hands as the panic continued to rise. Home wasn’t good, work was worse, and I was stuck in an awful limbo unsure of where to go from here (in life, I was on the bus on the way home). Instead of continuing to trudge down the hill to my house, I sat on the bench I walk past every day and listened.

The National’s 2010 album, High Violet, is one of “those” albums. Those albums that will always stay with me, that have truly changed and shaped who I am as a person. Over the years, I’ve revisited it so many times when I need to feel, to accept and to grow that it’s become a form of therapy. The National have helped me get through some of my darkest times, and I found myself completely floored that once again, as I felt myself really losing grip on everything around me, it had come back into my life. High Violet signifies the all important healing process, and is my proxy in which I try to (and always do) overcome difficult times.

Incredibly relatable due to the almost intentionally boring life they portray, lead singer Matt Berninger makes songs that aren’t about excessive lifestyles or celebrity. His lyrics about marital strife, financial burden and the pressures of every day life and the effects it has on every 7day people. He writes specifically about his own experiences, yet it’s the universal themes and the strange detachment from reality despite the specificity that allows the listener to insert themselves into the narrative. For my first real heartbreak, Sorrow became my song as Berninger mourned. “I don’t wanna get over you,” he laments and I lamented right there beside him. As he gets increasingly self-destructive in Little Faith, with lyrics like “I’ll set a fire just to see what it kills,” so too have I headed down that dark road.

The themes of isolation are just as strong, with songs like Afraid of Everyone describing the need to retreat, to hide away. “I try not to hurt anybody I like/ But I don’t have the drugs to sort it out…I’m afraid of everyone,” Berlinger’s baritone pierces my mind, singing exactly how I’m feeling – like a wrecking ball in someone’s life. “I had a whole in the middle…I told my friends not to worry,” the final verse of Anyone’s Ghost depicting someone turning away from the people around them, the paranoia rising and lack of trust in their friends waning as they delve deeper and deeper into their own mind. The feelings of overwhelming loneliness, utter hopelessness and total despair are all intertwined with these songs so much so that I’m almost scared to listen to this album at times – the memories are too strong and bring up chapters I have worked too hard to stow away. “I didn’t mean to let it get so far out of hand,” Lemonworld reflects, whilst Runaway depicts the stubborn fighting of a relationship and the seemingly impossible-to-find solution – a factor I know too well.

The feeling of that awful carpet in my first home on my arms and the back of my legs as I laid on the floor staring up at the ceiling, tears streaming down my face as the house shook from the volume of the speakers and the whole weight of the world was on my chest with my heart in a million pieces. We weren’t together but he still cheated. Turning my face and seeing my mother’s eyes look down at me with a fear I had never seen before. “How did it get this bad?” I didn’t know. The feeling of school, of the very real panic I felt when I thought about it ending and the finality of it all. Of falling for someone so hard, but my stupid brain preventing me from opening up to them. Friends leaving, coming back and sucking you dry and then leaving again. “Everyone must be kept at an arm’s length, then they can’t hurt me. Don’t let them in, don’t let them in,” I’d tell myself, and in each of these moments, High Violet was playing. My feelings I was almost ashamed of having were now being sung back to me with steady rock’n’roll and a stunning voice, allowing me to realise that I wasn’t alone at all. 

As I said, this album now serves as a form of therapy. The crashing cymbals and Berninger’s incredible baritone voice turned up as loud as possible thumping in my ears force me to recognise what is happening and look inside. It helped me accept that being sad and miserable isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it helped me come out the other side on more than a few occasions. I will never forget seeing the band live for the first time. Having undergone huge change over the past few months, it was an almost spiritual experience to see them perform these songs in front of me at one of Brisbane’s most beautiful venues, the natural amphitheatre at the Riverstage. The crashing, racing drum beat of Bloodbuzz Ohio rang out over thousands of people as Berninger’s deep voice boomed, “Stand up straight at the foot of your love.” The tears that had flowed so often whilst listening to this song before were back with a vengeance, and as the heavy guitar echoed through the trees and buildings and the night sky, I stood there watching and feeling it all. Truly liberated, it was a moment I would never forget as I sang along and cried. Perhaps Berninger and his band will never know how much this song, and this album means to me. But it doesn’t matter because I know how much it means to them.

I still get sad sometimes, and still feel like things quickly slip out from my control. I still give too much to people and get so hurt when they don’t do the same, and find those closest to me hurt me the most. But, having listened to this record regularly for six years, with each bout I get better. I know now that it’s okay, and I feel stronger when I put this on. The National’s High Violet helped me find solace in the sadness, and now I welcome these times because I know I can get through it.

Image: Consequence of Sound