reconfigure the Dessners’ embryonic sketches, Berninger is also
sometimes known as “the Dark Lord” or “the Naysayer.”
“Yesterday, my brother and I recorded a new National song with
a part I arranged for string orchestra,” says Bryce. “It was expensive
[to hire the musicians] and elaborate, and it took four days for me
to write everything out, but it’s very possible Matt will come in and
say, ‘No, leave the strings out.’ Then I have to think about it: ‘Well,
maybe he has a point. Maybe it works without the strings, even though
I think otherwise.’” As it happened, Berninger accepted the string
section in the song, which will be part of the soundtrack to the
upcoming film Win Win, which stars Paul Giamatti.
Berninger, who doesn’t play an instrument or read notation,
often gives the twins musical direction in the form of metaphor.
This can be frustrating, according to the Dessners, but ultimately
it forces them to seek out new techniques and sonorities—not
unlike learning a piece by Steve Reich. When High Violet ’s opening
number, “Terrible Love,” was being written, Berninger requested
accompaniment that sounded like “loose wool.” Aaron holed up in
his studio and recorded himself playing loudly through a bunch of
different amp and pedal configurations before he found a sound he
felt matched that description.
“[Benjamin Verdery] is not
only the best classical guitar-
ist and teacher out there, but
he’s also a great rock player.”
“In the end, I tuned my fifth string down to G to get a more res-
onant sound, and turned a Penn amp up really loud, to the point of
overdriving it,” Aaron recalls. “I also had a Boss tremolo pedal and
was looping myself on a Line 6 Delay Modeler. I played for eight
or nine minutes straight with this thick and warm sound, getting
crazier as I went along and coming unhinged toward the end, which
you can hear on the record.”
For his part, Bryce played complementary arpeggios in a higher
register—the sort of thing that wouldn’t have been out of place in,
say, an early electric Dylan song. With these sounds, the brothers
turned the most basic of progressions—I–IV or G–C/G—into some-
thing altogether new: a huge and blurry soundscape whose jitteriness
evokes the neurotic sort of romance that “Terrible Love” is all about.
Yet, even shorn of its wool—as in an alternate studio version and an
acoustic performance on Q TV—the song maintains its integrity.
Just as important to the National’s complex, deceptively simple
sound are drummer Bryan Devendorf’s propulsive rhythms—which
he augments with subtle mallet taps and clever use of various handheld percussion instruments—Scott Devendorf’s nimble bass work,
and Berninger’s baritone. But that’s just half the equation: While
said vocals are delivered in a manner that’s melancholy as often as
it’s nonchalant, the lyrics—which are written with the occasional
input of Berninger’s wife, Carin Besser, a former fiction editor
at The New Yorker Magazine—are unfailingly wry and obtuse.
Lines like “I was afraid / I’d eat your brains / ’cause I am evil”
(“Conversation 16”) and “I defend my family / with my orange
umbrella / I’m afraid of everyone” (“Afraid of Everyone”) are as
likely to make you smile or rewind and say, “Did he just say what I
think he said?” as they are to make you choke up a little.
Then there are the lush and imaginative orchestrations that Bryce
writes, sometimes with the assistance of former Yale associates and
composers/instrumentalists Padma Newsome (with whom he also
plays in the adventurous chamber ensemble Clogs) and Nico Muhly.
The gentle trio of French horn, trombone, and cello on “Runaway,”
and the rumbling bass clarinet on “Conversation 16” are examples
of the instrumental flourishes that add such uncommon depth and
detail to the music. “My arrangements tend to be very supportive
and kind of interior,” says Bryce. “There’s something about Matt’s
voice . . . orchestration can help glue it to the music, while bringing
out overtones that you might not normally hear.”
In their finished states, the songs on High Violet are at once raw
and refined, and they wend their way into your mind on multiple
levels. Since the music is so straightforward and diatonic, it’s acces-
sible to a wide audience of casual listeners unaware of some of the
sophisticated devices at work. At the same time, a conservatory geek
can admire the appropriation of contemporary classical sounds and
techniques, as well as the depth of the band’s musicality. In other
words, as it turns out, Aaron and Bryce Dessner may just be the
thinking man’s guitar heroes.