The National – Trouble Will Find Me
You won’t find anything new or ground-breaking on The National’s sixth album, but that’s perfectly OK, writes EDWARD SHARP-PAUL.
In discussing *The National’s new album with others, I’ve noticed that two things generally occur: people take its excellence as a given, and yet they only take a passing interest. It turns out that I know many fans of High Violet, some Boxer fans, even an Alligator fan, but few show any sustained interest in the band responsible for these works. Maybe one is enough with a band like this. Maybe The National’s consistency works against them – there’s something almost dull about a band that just keeps nailing a sound and a mood – or maybe it’s the endurance-sapping bleakness of their outlook, as personified in lead singer Matt Berninger.
The man sounds haunted, inhabiting his anxieties like an elegant, threadbare trench-coat. His familiar presence is comforting, but Trouble Will Find Me bears evidence of his subtle evolution as a lyricist. In The National’s career thus far, Berninger has spent much of his time wondering either how to make his way in the world, or how to block the world out completely. At 42, married, a father and a respected musician, what’s left to grouse about? Well, how his young daughter might make her way in the world or how to block the world out completely – without hitting the bottle quite as hard as her old man, of course.
Where he once directed his wonderful gift for words squarely at his own navel, fatherhood has broadened Berninger’s perspective, and his output is warmer, nobler and more likeable for it – this spark of empathy and love at the heart of even his most sad-sack couplets. It also helps that there’s just about enough humour in there to leaven the mix – just about. (“When I walk into the room, I do not light it up … fuck” is a personal favourite.)
“Fatherhood has broadened Berninger’s perspective, and his output is warmer, nobler and more likeable for it.”
It’s easy to focus on Berninger and his grumblings, and ignore the stunning quality of the band that he fronts. It’s their ability to calmly, consistently work these simple songs into set pieces of understated grandeur that allows Berninger to do as he pleases. Singling out any of the supporting cast is missing the point, but here goes: Aaron Dessner’s understated, sympathetic keys are the reason that Trouble Will Find Me isn’t the melodramatic pile of shit that it could have been. His good taste and that of his fellow players set The National apart from the Snow Patrols and One Republics of the world.
Trouble Will Find Me is still a hell of an undertaking, though. If you’re experiencing some apocalyptic personal troubles, it may be become a dear companion. If not, it might be an album that you find yourself returning to only occasionally.
Still, in spite of the heavy atmosphere, The National take steps to mix it up a little bit. The stilted 9/4 lurch of opener ‘I Should Live In Salt’ is a minor curveball, particularly when followed by the equally proggy 7/4 meter of ‘Demons’. Henceforth the band return to their after-hours, mid-tempo sweet spot, with only the sense of urgency that propels ‘Sea Of Love’ offering a similar surprise, a hitherto-unknown string to their bow.
When it comes to reinvention, The National aren’t exactly Radiohead. But if you think you’ve outgrown them, you haven’t. Matt Berninger’s quandaries are not the sort that can be outgrown, they’re the sort that stalk you to the grave. That The National can wring beauty from these bleak inevitabilities is the reason that they matter, and why it doesn’t really matter that Trouble Will Find Me sounds rather a lot like High Violet, and Boxer, and Alligator. What it really sounds like is an excellent band in fine fettle.
Trouble Will Find Me is out now through 4AD/Remote Control.