Release Date: May 21, 2013
Anatomies of melancholy in modern music rarely come with skeletons as complete as the National’s. Their audience continues to expand — hell, I heard “Fake Empire” in a Publix supermarket two months after its 2007 release. From the beginning, the Brooklyn-via-Ohio band’s craftsmanship complemented their rumpled, aging preppy chic, and on their aptly titled, once again self-produced sixth album Trouble Will Find Me, they add expansive filigrees: a thicker mix, subtle synth washes, more guitar, and a convincing performance by lead singer Matt Berninger. For listeners coming to all this late, the album makes a splendid introduction — they’ve never sounded so comfortably numb. But longtime fans might mourn the constriction of the band’s range.
Terrific at picking opening tracks, our hosts don’t disappoint with “I Should Live in Salt.” As startling as the maracas and the thick acoustic strumming — think the Bowie of Hunky Dory — is Berninger’s voice, straining upwards instead of letting his boys luxuriate in the rumbling Jacuzzi jets of his baritone. “Don’t make me read your mind / You should know me better than that,” he croons, each command dropping into place as one by one the familiar elements appear: Bryan Devendorf’s drums, which play the same role for the National as Peter Hook’s bass did for New Order; Aaron Dessner’s Roy Bittan-influenced piano lines; Bryce Dessner’s keening guitar solo harmonizes with the vocals.
“Don’t Swallow the Cap” is an even warmer security blanket, Bryce picking out single notes as Devendorf’s drums pound and Berninger murmurs, “I have only two emotions / Careful fear and dead devotion,” as if five other National albums didn’t exist. Gorgeous stuff. Pretend he isn’t singing in English and it’s easy to imagine these arabesques of doom soaring across a festival or arena crowd, where the friction of a mass audience leavens the sourness.
If Trouble Will Find Me offered a half-dozen other examples of such buoyancy, it would rank as the National’s finest, but too often it sticks to a desultory churn or at worst a meditative jangle — what Wallace Stevens would call a sadness without cause. The paradox of this record rests in how listening to Berninger, enthused by the dusky tones and new peaks of compassion he’s wringing from his vocals, puts renewed attention on the lyrics. These tropes include “If you lose me I’m gonna die,” “Everything I love is out to sea,” “There’s a science to walking through windows,” and “Don’t tell anyone I’m here / I’ve got Tylenol and beer.” This autumnal despair is an acquired taste — no one expects jollies from these serious men at this point in their careers. Moreover, as the audience gets older I’d expect an even tighter embrace: autumnal despair for a 35-year-old coincides with bumming the cigarettes your wife can’t see you smoke.
It isn’t exactly that the National should be something other than what they are — What They Are has made aesthetic and financial sense. But Trouble Will Find Me motions toward no one besides the victims of bad love. (Maybe this explains why a few critics clung to Berninger’s oblique nod to the Great Recession in 2010 predecessor High Violet‘s “Bloodbuzz, Ohio”). “This Is the Last Time” idles for almost four minutes until strings and female harmonies lift the track to that Meadowlands arena-empyrean alluded to earlier. On early leaked track “Demons,” Berninger frets and fusses, but as per the glories and limits of his baritone, doesn’t sulk, which would have at least threatened his gray skies with rain. A mournful horn reminds him he’s secretly in love with everyone in his childhood; this keeps him up nights more than the thought of alligators in sewers and buzzards in the sky. Despite his striking figures, the lyrics offer the wisdom of a couple’s-therapy transcript, especially noticeable in the album’s middle stretch, where songs like “Heavenfaced” claim little more than Berninger’s mumblings of anguish.
But when the National abandon the abattoir for the cocktail lounge, things get poignant. Fiona Apple could triumph with the ascending-descending melody line of “Pink Rabbits” — named, aha, after a strawberry-induced cocktail. It rivals High Violet‘s “England,” a closer as grand as anything on John Cale’s Paris 1919. On the discreet tunelet “I Need My Girl,” anchored to an arpeggiated guitar riff, Berninger ends up in a party full of punks and cannonballers; from his Droopy Dog mope, though, you’d think this affair was as gruesome as a Senate budget hearing. Give me more modest strophes like “Graceless,” with Devendorf playing two-step rhythms and Berninger acknowledging how much he hates “this.” It evokes past highlights like “Green Gloves” or “Daughters of the Soho Riots,” and lasts not a second longer than necessary.
Poised, cool, and impermeable, Trouble Will Find Me apotheosizes urban romance and its discontents, where conversations are monologues, parties are confessionals, and education and analysis are interchangeable. The National’s future looks like it will be a series of attempts at creating ever more exquisite settings for their singer — so long as these settings sound enough like their past. Their midtempo miserabilism is here to stay.