High Violet (4AD)
On their fifth album, Brooklyn's the National sound more than ever like a band on the cusp of something bigger. Their elegant rock has made them an indie heavyweight, but their polish and calculated drama suggest that the band would be equally suited to stardom on the level of Coldplay or U2. (Even rawer tracks like 2005's "Abel" are easy to imagine as 10,000-fan sing-alongs.) They've got the image, the chops, and the confidence; all they need to cross over is a hit.
That hit, sadly, is nowhere to be found on High Violet, their first record since 2007's Boxer. The band continues to drift into expansive, less forceful territory; from the sad shimmer of opener "Terrible Love," High Violet's momentum builds and then dissipates track by track, racking up occasional highlights (particularly the uptempo single "Bloodbuzz Ohio") but failing to really distinguish the songs from each other. The inventive arrangements come across too subtly in the performance and production, and the same-sounding compositions are particularly unkind to vocalist Matt Berninger, whose sad-sack baritone is less affecting when its formula is so easily observed. (Even Bryan Devendorf, whose driving percussion has always kept the National's mopier leanings in check, eases off considerably.) Most confounding is the band's tendency to downplay its best hooks ("Sorrow"), or bury them deep in otherwise unexceptional songs ("Afraid of Everyone"). There's a wider audience out there ready for the National, but the National doesn't seem quite ready for them.