Date of Release: 21-May-2013
It’s a grower! Just like every album by this brilliantly morose band.
Full disclosure – High Violet by The National is one of the albums that changed my life. I’ve bought this album three times. I picked up the CD on its release day in May 2010, then gave it away when I bought the deluxe 2CD version on Record Store Day that autumn. When I finally splashed out for a shiny new record player, High Violet was in the sack of LPs that I picked up on the way home. It took repeated listens to fully open up to me but High Violet’s all-encompassing sense of melancholy and wistfulness, offset by snatches of dark comedy, is the soundtrack of my soul.
Fair to say – The National’s next album would have a lot to live up to.
Fast forward to 2013, and the Brooklyn-based band is back with Trouble Will Find Me. Sonically, the template is much the same as last time. There are plenty of brooding, introspective tunes, with deceptively complex arrangements, and tastefully deployed horns and strings. Occasional bursts of distorted noise create angst-ridden counterpoints, but overall the noisy bits are fewer and further between than on High Violet, Boxer, and Alligator. Early reviewers often remarked that the new record sounds “dull” in comparison to its predecessors, but I would argue that it’s simply just a little leaner and more grown-up. And like one of your introverted friends, it just takes a little while to get to know. True beauty lies within.
As always, Matt Berninger’s baritone vocals guide the attentive listener through a maelstrom of complex emotions and ideas. The lyrics to “I Should Live In Salt” are drowning in regret, perhaps because of the protagonist’s inability to relate to family or friends as well as he would like to. “Demons” is a little more upbeat musically, but the deadpan delivery of words peeks into the diary of a tortured soul. In the bridge, we learn “every day I start so great, and then the sunlight dims / the less I look, the more I see the pythons in the limbs / I do not know what’s wrong with me, the sour is in the cut / when I walk into a room, I do not light it up / So I stay down, with my demons”. To me, the lyric sounds like someone that has struggled to believe in something bigger and more profound than his own thoughts, but he remains trapped in his own well of despair. Or maybe he chooses to stay down with his demons, because it’s the only place that makes sense to him, taking comfort in the familiar? I love it when songs are so evocative, yet still open to multiple interpretations.
“Don’t Swallow The Cap” was the adult alternative radio single, with a breezy melody (insofar as The National’s catalogue goes) disguising a lyric that once again empathizes with someone that struggles to bring order to the chaos in his world. “Fireproof” is a sad paean to a long-lost ‘Jennifer’, someone that was different enough from the protagonist (fireproof vs easily scarred, secretive vs an open book) that they were not meant to be together in the long run. And yet, he retrospectively admires and envies some of her harder qualities. Meanwhile “Sea of Love”, with its layers of fuzzy guitars and odd time signature, gives the album its title.
The centerpiece of the album is “Heavenfaced”, a pretty ballad that seems to be about the trials and tribulations of maintaining a loving relationship. It’s a theme that seems to flow through many of the songs on the album. Like on “This Is The Last Time”, where the exasperated subject muses on whether his complicated relationship with the mythical ‘Jenny’ is worth the effort. In the first two-thirds of the song, a gorgeous guitar riff and rhythmic drums underpin the story of how “I wish everybody knew what’s so great about you / but your love is such a swamp”. Later, the song abruptly switches course, diverting down a side street of mournful strings and acoustic guitar as Berninger mourns “Jenny, I am in trouble / can’t get these thoughts out of me / baby you gave me bad ideas”.
The song “Graceless” is built around an upbeat bed of drums and bass, and you may occasionally hear it on satellite radio. Lyrically it returns to the theme of “Demons”, an introvert’s uneasiness with his place in the world, of struggling with how to tiptoe around other people’s lives with grace and dignity and meaning. The music is slightly off-kilter and unresolved, providing the perfect foil for the subject matter.
Just like High Violet, Trouble Will Find Me is back-loaded with two of its best songs. Matt Berninger is notorious for trying to balance his dichotomous “front-man for a major rock band” duties with his steep introversion. By all accounts in the press, if it wasn’t for an unlimited supply of red wine he would never be able to go onstage. To me, the words to the propulsive and melodic “Humiliation” are his way of seeing the black comedy in his chosen profession. I especially love the funny word-play of “As the freefall advances, I’m the moron who dances / I was teething on roses, I was in guns ‘n’ noses”. The playful, intentional slip reminds me of my favourite track on High Violet. In the immaculate “England” he sang “you must be somewhere in London, walking Abbey Lane / I don’t even think to make corrections”. I think Berninger feels both humiliated and energized by the trappings of being a singer in a touring band. Every moment spent absorbing the audience’s adulation on stage is surely countered by the forced extroversion of meet & greets and soulless corporate handshaking. Yet I’m sure he appreciates how lucky he is to have a cabal of talented musicians around him that create a safe musical arena where he can wrestle his demons.
The majestic “Pink Rabbits” feels like a second chapter to the previous album’s “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”. Once again, a complex story unfolds over a loping, melancholy melody. Berninger revisits the struggles of an introvert to survive in an extroverted world, and to build and maintain relationships with the people he cares about despite his all-too-frequent absence. “Am I the one you think about when you’re sitting in your fainting chair, drinking Pink Rabbits?” Listen carefully to the record, here and elsewhere, and you can hear dislocated echoes of calling the American east coast home but recording in Los Angeles. “You said it would be painless, a needle in a doll / you said it would be painless, it wasn’t that at all”. Listen to this refrain just once, and anyone with a shred of introversion will have it stuck in his or her head for days.
“Hard to Find” closes the album with a meditation on a past (perhaps a past lover, a friend, or a place to call home) that’s gone but not forgotten. Every time I hear the line “really not that far away, I could be there in a day” I remember the life-changing trip that I took last year to a faraway land. Maybe it’s true that the people and places that you encounter on your journey through life are never truly lost, so long as you keep them in your memory. With a little patience and a few focused listenings, the indelible songs written by The National will likewise lodge in your memory and hopefully find you as they found me.