Top positive review
A great album, but not quite the National's best
on 7 September 2017
I really like this album, and will happily listen to it repeatedly, but do feel it is a *very* slight disappointment after High Violet and Boxer.
I think the key distinctives of the National sound have been threefold: Matt Berninger's deep baritone voice; Bryan Devendorf's tight, inticrate, almost melodic rhythms (backed up by brother Scott's solid bass); and the Dessner brothers' intricate guitar ostinatos. To different extents it feels like they've eschewed these and as a result become a bit more mainstream.
This shift is biggest in terms of Berninger's vocals. He sticks mostly to more normal and higher registers - particularly in the opener I Should Live in Salt - and turns out to be unexpectedly competent; but it's this competence which is the trouble. It's lost some of the charm, character and depth which comes through in his deeper vocals. His old style is occasionally deployed (Demons), but it doesn't dominate the sound in the way it does on older albums.
The drums are less dominant, and whilst Devendorf's playing is still central, it doesn't seem to hold the sound together in the same way as say, Bloodbuzz Ohio, even when it is nicely high in the mix (Demons, Don't Swallow the Cap, Graceless).
Again, the traditional Dessner sound is still there in places (Fireproof, I need my Girl), but it feels like they are maybe a bit embarrassed to sprinkle it more liberally - and so whilst it has evolved, it is mostly into something less distinctive.
The peak of this mainstreaming is towards the end of Heavenfaced, when you could easily be mistaken for thinking you were listening to U2, complete with Edge-style guitar and Berninger doing some Bono-esque falsetto.
Having said that, the positives way outweigh the negatives. There aren't any bad songs on it, and in fact there are more very good than merely good ones. Don't swallow the Cap is a great upbeat single. Slipped and Pink Rabbits are great slow-burners, the reverby vocal and sparse guitar and piano of the former being a particularly beautiful moment.
So all-in-all, a great album, and maybe the best easy introduction to the National, but not quite as wonderful as the previous two