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Love Letter To A Record: Maison Hall On The National’s ‘High Violet’

Many of us can link a certain album to pivotal moments in our lives. Whether it’s the first record you bought with your own money, the chord you first learnt to play on guitar, the song that soundtracked your first kiss, the album that got you those awkward and painful pubescent years or the one that set off light bulbs in your brain and inspired you to take a big leap of faith into the unknown – music is often the catalyst for change in our lives and can even help shape who we become.

In this Love Letter To A Record series, Music Feeds asks artists to reflect on their relationship with music and share with us stories about the effect music has had on their lives.

Joe Kneipp, Maison Hall – The National, High Violet, (2010)

I know exactly where I was when I heard ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ for the first time. The date is evasive: all those days were the same.

I’m in my formative, prickly teen years. I’m in a boarding house, in the oppressive Brisbane heat. It’s ‘late’, though late is an edict, a proclamation over loudspeakers. I’m covertly listening to my iPod mini under my doona after lights out, periodically pausing to ensure I’m not nabbed by the night supervisor. I’m swallowing the fear of capture, the panic of sleeplessness, my ever-present homesickness.

So far, my disobedience has brought little joy. The playlist I’m risking detention for (ripped from an older boys’ iTunes library) is boring. I’ve already overplayed the Passion Pit and Phoenix cuts – even Bloc Party (a usual fav) is growing stale. Then:

“Stand up straight at the foot of your love…”

I sit up.

“…I still owe money, to the money, to the money I owe….”

The meaning is obscured, inchoate. The pathos is not. Ohio, the baritone man’s home, has become alien. He fears it has forgotten him. I recognise this lament, inextricable from place, immediately.

I listen 20 times before I go to sleep.

The next day, I find a good torrent and get High Violet in full (stealing, for sure, but I’ve since made good on this parsimony). By the chorus of ‘Anyone’s Ghost’ I’m enthralled. By the end of ‘England’, my mouths’ agape. How is it possible for a record to be this good?

When I finish, I rip a copy onto a USB and give it to a mate, one I’ve remained musically indebted to since he showed me Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago the year prior. I run out of superlatives to describe how I feel about the record, but not before pointing out ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ as the choice cut.

He comes to my room later that night to tell me it’s one of the greatest things he’s ever heard, but that the best song is clearly the closer, ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’. Unknown to both of us, the choral harmonies on that track belong to none other than Justin Vernon.

Years since, this record remains formidable and engrossing. I think its brilliance lies in its contradictions. It’s literary and it’s accessible. It’s tranquil and it’s chaotic. Saccharine and devastating. Grandiloquent and modest.

I can see how someone might find this record as overly ‘mopey’, but I’d disagree. It’s melancholic in the most literal sense – the sadness is pensive, a considered and wrought knowing. Its sombreness belies a deep optimism.

“All the very best of us, string ourselves up for love…”

I don’t think anyone I’ve ever shown High Violet to has come away empty-handed. It has a stickiness, a universality. Is there any wonder the National can now count Taylor Swift among their collaborators?

I owe this record a great debt of gratitude. It made me feel less alone – the noblest of things art, and the people who make art, can do.

Watch the video for ‘Montreux’, Maison Hall’s first new music since their debut album It Was Never About Me back in 2017, right here.

This month the band will return to the stage to celebrate the launch of ‘Montreux’ in Brisbane and Melbourne and Canberra. Details here.

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