The National – Trouble Will Find Me
by Ryan Kehr (English/Journalism), published May 30th 2013
Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!
To say it’s been a busy few weeks for The National is an understatement if I’ve ever heard one. After three long years of writing and recording their new LP, Trouble Will Find Me, it’s finally been released upon the masses—and the appetite of their salivating fan-base has, at least for the moment, been sated. To celebrate (read: promote) the release, these Cincinnati natives have gone above and beyond the standard late-night talk-show circuit. In addition to a six-hour set at MOMA with a depressingly limited set-list, Matt, Scott and Aaron all hung out at the Sirius XM U studio for a week of guest DJ madness, they premiered a new documentary at 2013’s Tribeca Film Fest and, as if that wasn’t enough buzz, both co-curated and headlined this past weekend’s Boston Calling festival to kick off an ambitious North American tour.
None of this PR nonsense means a darned thing though if the album is terrible. So…is it?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: no.
Well, I guess it isn’t quite that simple, so let’s dive into it.
First, the good:
Trouble Will Find Me is thirteen tracks of, if nothing else, simplicity. Almost all of the songs have an unpretentious and approachable tone, immediately appealing to their audience through a collection of minimal, repetitive chord changes that have been warped and twisted just enough to keep things interesting. “Slipped” fits this bill perfectly, showcasing the same chords as Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” off of 1997’s Time Out of Mind, just reordered and paired with Berninger’s mournful writing. This simplicity works well for the record, allowing what are arguably the three strongest aspects of the band, smart lyricism, driving percussion and Berninger’s gravely baritone vocal lines, to shine through.
The lyrics, written by frontman Matt Berninger, are some of The National’s most exceptional work to date—matching even some of Boxer’s classics from five years previous. Themes of the album range from declarations of brotherly love on “I Should Live in Salt” to somber musings of love and inadequacy on “Don’t Swallow the Cap”; but as is the National’s trademark, these themes aren’t bogged down by melodrama. Berninger keeps the writing just ambiguous, vague and honest enough to engage with his audience without coming across as trite. One of the record’s final tracks, “Pink Rabbits,” has Berninger repeating, “You didn’t see me I was falling apart / I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park.” An obscure metaphor like this can only be the handiwork of the ever-brooding National front man, and it’s clear he hasn’t lost his edge.
A noticeable departure from their previous material is the uplifting instrumentation. Primarily written and produced by guitarist Aaron Dessner, the arrangements on Trouble Will Find Me surprisingly radiate with more confidence and optimism than some of their previous, more somber, releases (looking at you Boxer). Two notable tracks off the record, “This is the Last Time” and “Humiliation,” both succeed in large part because of their tight instrumental builds, leading to feel-good peaks of repeating, reverb-laden refrains. While Berninger’s writing can be as melancholy and gloomy as ever (e.g. “I wish that I could rise above it, but I stay down with my demons…”), it’s refreshing to hear a change in pace in this notoriously serious group.
And the drums.
Oh God, the drums.
The enigmatic Bryan Devendorf can be credited for no small part of The National’s success. Alligator’s “Mr. November” or High Violet’s “Bloodbuzz Ohio” would be a shadow of their former selves without Devendorf’s driving percussion tying everything together—and the tracks of Trouble Will Find Me are no exception. “Graceless” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap” are both built around repetitive, hypnotic beats that meld expertly into Berninger’s cleverly phrased vocal lines. Even on the record’s somewhat slower tracks (e.g. “Heavenfaced”), the accented drums in the background fill out Dessner’s arrangements and bring them to their full potential.
Now, the bad:
From the first listen, it’s easy to hear that Trouble Will Find Me is a confident, well-written entry into the National’s expansive catalogue; unfortunately though, it’s also incredibly…safe.
Trouble Will Find Me, while slightly more uplifting than previous entries, lacks the dynamic variation found in some of the band’s previous releases. On Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, each track felt distinct—from the cello riffs on “Cardinal Song” to the electronic beats of “Sugar Wife.” On Alligator, they expanded their musical toolbox with such moments as the inclusion of a clarinet quartet in “The Geese of Beverly Road.” Yet on Trouble Will Find Me, many of the tracks blend together due to their similar instrumentation, tempo and format. While the catchy melodic hooks of “This is the Last Time” and “I Need My Girl” help alleviate this issue, the album still left me wanting something just a little more radical from this veteran group.
Seeing Matt Berninger live, one thing that is apparent is his almost unbridled—or even unhinged—passion. Trouble Will Find Me struggles to capture this. Berninger’s voice rarely fluctuates above his typical melancholic drone and, while this has worked for the group in the past, it would have been nice to see them tap into the energy put out in their live performances.
The record’s last issue can be summarized in one track title: “Fireproof.” Nearly every positive thing I’ve mentioned about Trouble Will Find Me is disproved in this flat track. The rhythm kicks in with a sloppy introduction, the lyrics are stale and melodramatic, and the hook of Berninger crooning, “You’re fireproof” feels recycled and tired. If there’s any silver lining, it’s that this is the only blemish on the otherwise formidable lineup of songs.
And finally, the verdict:
Trouble Will Find Me’s assortment of 12 strong tracks (omitting the aforementioned blunder) is a welcomed addition to The National’s catalogue. Berninger’s writing and vocals are back in full force, honed over a decade of trial-and-error and experimentation. The uplifting, confident tone of the record is a refreshing direction for this typically somber group, and a promising sign of what’s to come.
While perhaps not their most radical or energetic release, Trouble Will Find Me succeeds in cementing The National’s place amid indie royalty. The record showcases a mature group that’s comfortable in their own skin and isn’t going to let their past success or the expectations of their fans influence the quality of their music.
In addendum: It’s rumored that Berninger goes through a bottle of wine for each set he performs, and I would suggest that—while it’s not needed to enjoy this solid record—you should follow in suit.
Recommended Tracks: This Is The Last Time, I Need My Girl, Slipped, Don’t Swallow the Cap