I’m sure it is a little bittersweet when your band has its highest debut ever –#3 to be exact —  on the Billboard 200 album chart with its new, critically-acclaimed album, and the record that still sits at the top is from…Justin Bieber.

I wonder if after celebrating the success of their new album, High Violet — perhaps with a delicious meal and a few beers — they discussed finding Bieber, shaving his head and throwing him into a dumpster like in some ’80s movie where the underdog gets revenge on the bully.  I’m guessing they’re more mature than I am.

Though High Violet is the National’s fifth studio album, it is also an album of firsts — it’s the their first record since their brilliant 2007 release, Boxer; it is their first album on the 4AD label; and it is their first record to be recorded in their own studio in Brooklyn.

In a little over 10 years, the National — who now reside in Brooklyn, but hail from my hometown of Cincinnati — have gone from underground to, well, national stars. Propelled into the limelight by critical acclaim for Boxer and its 2005 predecessor, Alligator, as well as opening slots touring with Arcade Fire and R.E.M., you may also recall that one of their songs, “Fake Empire,” was used by the Obama campagin as an anthem of sorts for his presidential run — it was the soundtrack to the promotional video Signs Of Hope And Change, and was the background music played during his victory rally in Grant Park.

Rather than jump right into recording a new album after the end of the Boxer tour, the guys took a little time off and focused on other things. Aaron and Bryce co-produced 2009’s Dark Was The Night, the 31-track benefit album for the Red Hot Organization and the band performed in a related Radio City Music Hall concert alongside the likes of David Byrne, Dirty Projectors, Feist and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings.

After that, the Brooklyn Academy Of Music commissioned the Dessner brothers to write, and perform at the Howard Gilman Opera House, accompanied by a film created by visual artist Matthew Ritchie, a 70-minute through-composed song cycle, titled The Long Count. And in March of this year, I had the pleasure of attending two of the three nights of the fifth MusicNow festival, created and curated by Bryce, here in Cincinnati.  And Matt Berninger became a first-time father in early 2009.

Eventually, though, songs for a new album started to come together. They began with music recorded in the newly-built garage studio constructed behind Aaron’s house and were created during the same time as the Dessners were working on The Long Count. Over a period of time,  Berninger received the “sketches,” as he calls them, and he would start writing lyrics. This was a new way of songwriting for the band, allowing for more freedom and less anxiety in the process.

One of the things that makes this album different from its predecessors is that its sound and lyrics have a perspective that is, as Berninger explains, “more of an ‘us’ than an ‘I.’ The perspective is less singular.” Adding to the more communal feel of the record is the large group of guests that appear on a variety of songs, including Sufjan Stevens, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, Padma Newsome of Clogs, Nico Muhly and Doveman’s Thomas Bartlett.

While I love the National’s other albums, what makes High Violet stand out for me is that it has a softer, almost ethereal sound. The songs are more layered and a little more experimental than their other work. The sound of this album can’t really be defined — as Aaron puts it, “It’s not hi-fi and orchestral but at the same time it’s not garage rock, even though ideas from both of those worlds are important elements of what we do.” However you want to categorize it, High Violet is a triumph — one of the most gorgeous records I’ve heard in a long time.

I adore the whole album, but my favorite tracks are “Anyone’s Ghost,” “Afraid of Everyone,” “England,” “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” and the first single, “Bloodbuzz Ohio.”

The National kicks off the U.S. leg of their tour to support High Violet this Friday in Los Angeles. If they’re coming to your neck of the woods, you should definitely go see them.

Dates:

05.21.10 Los Angeles, CA – The Wiltern
05.22.10 Los Angeles, CA – The Wiltern #
05.23.10 San Diego, CA – Spreckels Theatre #
05.26.10 Oakland, CA – Fox Theatre
05.27.10 Oakland, CA – Fox Theatre #
05.29.10 Quincy, WA – Sasquatch Festival
06.02.10 Boston, MA – House of Blues %
06.03.10 Boston, MA – House of Blues %
06.04.10 Philadelphia, PA – Electric Factory %
06.05.10 Philadelphia, PA – Electric Factory %
06.06.10 Washington, DC – DAR Constitution Hall %
06.08.10 Toronto, Ontario – Massey Hall %
06.09.10 Toronto, Ontario – Massey Hall %
06.11-13.10 Manchester, TN – Bonnaroo
06.16.10 New York, NY – Radio City Music Hall %
07.27.10 Brooklyn, NY – Prospect Park ^

* Pavement
# Ramona Falls
^ Beach House
% The Antlers