The National transforms melancholy into beauty on fifth album, 'High Violet'

It’s what is tucked into the corners, the unexpected musical passage or subtly dazzling turn of phrase, that elevates The National’s songs into something more than just music and words.

If you’re so inclined, the New York band becomes a way to make sense of the tumult of life in an age when it’s possible to feel at once interconnected, over-stimulated and lonely as hell — or, maybe, it’s a refuge where such intrusions recede, washed away by the quiet solidarity of kindred spirits commiserating.

That was the subtext, anyway, of the band’s four albums through the brilliant 2007 release, “Boxer.” The National is somewhat more engaged with the world on its latest, “High Violet” (Beggars), a collection of songs looking outward.

As on “Boxer,” the music is understated here, with none of the jarring screamers that popped up on earlier National records. These songs are measured, singer Matt Berninger murmuring in his resonant baritone over guitars and, occasionally, strings and horns, all powered by drummer Bryan Devendorf’s sturdy, impeccable rhythm.

Berninger’s lyrics are typically oblique, though he summons scenes that are vivid and heart twisting. “What makes you think I’m enjoying being led to the flood?” he sings on “Runaway,” a desolate song built on acoustic guitar and adorned with mournful horns. He employs horror-movie imagery on “Conversation 16,” and lifts his anguished voice in an arresting melody over piano and strings on “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” transforming melancholy into resigned beauty.

As with any multi-layered art form, “High Violet” unfolds over time, expanding as it draws you further and further into its wistful embrace.

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— Text by Eric R. Danton, photo by Keith Klenowski

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