The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Words: Devin Kelly
I remember it clearly. It was December 16th, 2011, and I was sitting on the edge of my seat, peering over the balcony at the Beacon Theatre, waiting, listening, waiting and listening. I told my friend, “If they play ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio,’ I’m going to cry. I swear.” And they did. And I cried. And ten rows behind me, a bunch of English blokes, grown men full on Newcastle Ale and pub food, screamed for “England,” and when the opening chords of that number echoed off the walls, those drunk and pink-faced men fell into a silence that only occurs when tears trickle slowly down your face. That was The National. That was High Violet, an album so wrought and devastating and specific that it had the power to rip your heart apart and crumple you up into a pile on the floor.
This year, the Brooklyn-based band released its sixth full-length, Trouble Will Find Me, almost exactly three years after High Violet’s critical acclaim. The last three years have allowed the band to establish themselves as the godfathers of Brooklyn-based indie rock, sticking their hands into the pot as producers for various musicians, including Sharon Van Etten and Local Natives, while also becoming highly supportive of newer artists on the indie scene, including their touring mate Trevor Powers and his growing success under the moniker Youth Lagoon. Since 2007’s Boxer solidified The National’s place in indie music, it seems that they can do no wrong. Their music has been described as growing, melancholy rock, aimed at addressing a sort of masculine depression. Their music also has not changed much. It has only been tinkered with, perfected in the same way a clockmaker deals with smaller and smaller tools as he moves through the stages of his architecture.
So what of Trouble? To start, it is sparingly beautiful. It is scaled back, with Bryan Devendorf’s drumming playing less of an up-front role than it did in other works, including, for example, High Violet’s “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and Boxer’s “Apartment Story.” In that sense, it takes less time to grow on the listener. It settles. Surrounds. Deepens. Haunts. Early singles “Sea of Love” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap” still have that urgent, almost anxious rhythm of classic National singles, and for that reason they stand apart as anthems in an album that (for a National album) is remarkably free of the classic build and swell and emotional burst.
But where Trouble lacks anthems, it has sheer and simple melancholic beauty. “Slipped,” “Pink Rabbits,” “Hard to Find,” and “I Need My Girl” stand out as gorgeous tracks, spared back to allow the listener to appreciate the delicate twin-pickings of the Dessner brothers, or the soft rising horn arrangements that roll like supple waves. Lyrically, Berninger is his depressive and witty self, per usual, with lines like “Remember when you lost your shit and drove your car into the garden / you got out and said I’m sorry to the vines and no one saw it,” or “I’m so surprised you want to dance with me now / I was just getting used to living life without you around.” Some might say Berninger is a little more general with his lyricism in Trouble than in High Violet, where certain songs dealt with specific instances of his life, such as the alarming honesty of “Afraid of Everyone,” where Berninger confesses his fears of being a father unready to give up his reliance on drugs and alcohol. However, Trouble’s lyrics, brooding and poetic, and at times full of dark comedic wit, act as a response to the stark specificity of High Violet. If High Violet was Berninger singing anxiously on the streets of New York, then Trouble is Berninger back on his couch, drinking slowly and giving himself away to memory and regret and self-doubt.
Critics of Trouble have claimed that the album sounds too much like past National albums, that it isn’t inventive, new, or innovative. But it is—it is inventive in the sense that very few, if any, artists (Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Andrew Bird, and Owen Pallet come to mind) have delivered as consistently and as near-perfectly as The National have for over a decade. That is innovative—to be a band that does not bend, that does not give in to popular conventions, that does not listen to people who say they are too sad, too dry, too morose. In a world of faux happiness and happy pills, The National have delivered honesty and authenticity with beautiful undertones. Berninger is a remarkable lyricist, and his words illustrate what some might deem the “New York Personality Disorder,” or, what it means to be an anxious Manhattan man. He sings, without need for excessive range, just that simple, deep baritone, about what it feels like to have a little bit of money to spend and a lot of heart to break. This is music for alcoholics. Music for those nights when the walk back from the bar is a little too long and a little too lonely, when everything gives way to regret and anxiety and you just want to be reminded that somebody, somewhere out there, knows what it means and how it hurts to feel. It is music for those who don’t want to cry but know that they have to. This is everyman’s music, music that expresses the fearfulness of trying to feel while living in a world that is slowly closing in on itself.
It is a beautiful album, a continued step towards perfection for The National.
Fan-made video for “Hard to Find”
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