#3 – Trouble Will Find Me by The National

Trouble Will Find MeLabel:  4AD

Date of Release:  21-May-2013

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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.

click to hear “Demons” by The National

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Twenty-Nine Years

I want to hurry home to you
Put on a slow, dumb show for you and crack you up
So you can put a blue ribbon on my brain
God I’m very, very frightened that I’ll overdo it
You know I dreamed about you
For twenty-nine years before I saw you
You know I dreamed about you
I missed you, for twenty-nine years

“Slow Show” by The National, from 2007’s Boxer album

It’s an inescapable fact that Matt Berninger has a knack for putting his feelings into words, feelings that just about everyone can relate to.  Romance, fear, excitement, longing… it’s all laid out for us in sixty-odd words.  Superimpose the gorgeous melody, and you get musical salvation.

The Spin Cycle

I love this cartoon:

I feel like Charlie Brown’s kindred spirit at the best of times (premature chrome-dome, no fashion sense, unrequited love for the little red-haired girl).  This cartoon just cements it – tomorrow I go shopping for zig-zag shirts.

Mr. Schulz has posed a question for the ages.  Does listening to depressing music make you sad, or do depressed people simply choose to listen to melancholy music?

Here’s my two cents worth on the matter.  From my perspective (and I swear this isn’t meant to be a cop-out), it’s a bit of both.

I have always had a symbiotic relationship with my record collection.  In many ways, it is my best friend.  I’ve been told that I tend to put a noticeable distance between myself and other people, even my closest friends.  I doubt that anyone knows my favourite colour (cobalt blue), or what I want to do when I retire (putter around a cabin in the mountains, watching wild creatures wander through the yard), or even what I find most attractive about a woman (her voice and what she has to say).  The metaphorical wall I’ve erected around myself has been remarkably effective at limiting the number of emotional relationships I’ve shared with people.

But despite the impenetrable Fortress of Solitude, music is always right there at the centre of my soul.

My music is there when I’m out for a three-hour walk through aspen parkland.  My music is there when I’ve had a particularly good day at work or a good night at hockey.  My music is there as I sit around the campfire, summit a new pass on a hike, or wait in a departure lounge for a plane.

And, yes, music is there when I’m feeling blue.  It waits for me with open arms and a reassuring embrace.  It doesn’t judge.  It doesn’t mock.  It simply understands that not every day is going to be euphoria.  It knows that someone who has to work so hard to suppress his roller-coaster of emotions just to stay on an even keel is going to melt down from time to time.

Today is an odd day.  The calendar says it is springtime, but it’s been snowing since 4 a.m.  The pavement is wet, while big wet flakes continue to accumulate on my back lawn, now 4″ thick.  Maybe it’s the strange weather that is lending everything a sense of disorder.  Something just seems off-kilter, out of balance, incomplete.  I want to be somewhere else, anywhere else.  There’s an emptiness, a void; a yearning and a burning that can’t be extinguished.  Like the wise man once said:

I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields…
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Right after I post this meandering collection of words, I’m going to take the fourteen steps down to my basement, cue up the stereo, and re-establish my usual dent on the sofa.  At times like these, my record collection is my salvation.

I can’t speak for everyone.  But I know that when I’m feeling dislocated and disjointed, music helps to ground me.  I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that depressed people listen to sad music, or the act of listening to sad music will depress someone.  Reality is more complicated than simple cause and effect.  I do think that there is something incredibly powerful about music, something that taps into our humanity.  Something that makes us feel a little less lonely on a snowy Saturday night in April.  Something that defies a proper explanation, but is still very real and profound.  I think people in a certain mood are always going to gravitate toward a certain kind of music, just to remind themselves that someone else out there feels the same way.  The music doesn’t depress them – it offers them a refuge.  An arm around their torso and a head on their shoulder.

A quick check of iTunes will reveal the tracks you listen to the most.  Apparently, the top of the Craven Hermit charts goes something like this:

  • “England” by The National
  • “Undisclosed Desires” by Muse
  • “Lucky” by Radiohead
  • “Adventures in Solitude” by the New Pornographers
  • “How to Fight Loneliness” by Wilco
  • “Mess” by Ben Folds Five
  • “Transatlanticism” by Death Cab for Cutie
  • “What I Have To Offer” by Eels
  • “The Scientist” by Coldplay
  • “Naked As We Came” by Iron & Wine
  • “Both Sides Are Even” by The Boxer Rebellion
  • “Drive” by R.E.M.

So, not exactly AC/DC’s greatest hits then!  But there’s very few things in this world that I would take in trade for my relationship with these tunes.

I wonder if Charlie Brown ever managed to find a copy of Transatlanticism on vinyl.  I bet he’d love it.

The Boys Are Back In Town

Okay, maybe they’re not “boys” per se.  How about ganders (and geese)?

Heritage Hills Geese

After a relatively short and mild winter here in the hinterland, the migratory birds are starting to return.  These Canada geese have parked themselves on the edge of the local wetlands, squonking away like modal jazz saxophonists.  One presumes they are the reconnaissance skein of their flock, sent ahead to scope out the situation for the legions to follow.  Or perhaps they were just really keen to travel.

Geese are one of those creatures that mate for life, travelling and nesting in pairs.  That’s something noble to admire about our fine-feathered friends the next time you’re cursing them for chasing you off a golf course or messing up your lawn.

There was an item on 60 Minutes this week about people that are afflicted with face-blindness, which I wouldn’t wish on anyone.  The report also mentioned the reciprocal situation: people that can’t forget a face.  I don’t have perfect facial recall – or face blindness for that matter.  But I’ve often wondered if I have an unusual ability to memorize musical passages.  There are so many songs that seem to get imprinted directly onto my brain, as though I have a multi-track tape recorder lodged between my ears.  I can skip forwards, backwards, isolate various instruments, and pick out specific melodic phrases and beats and lyrics.  It’s also really easy to pick out instruments or voices that are slightly out of tune.  It’s a skill with absolutely no value when it comes to earning a paycheque in my chosen profession, but it thankfully seems to add to my ability to appreciate music.  Hopefully every music fan has some degree of this ability.

On Sunday, the weather was nice so I jumped on the Heel-Toe Express and did a loop around the neighbourhood.  My trusty Nike+ shoes and iPhone app tell me that I hiked 16.35 km in a tick over three hours, which is pretty decent considering the number of slushy sections that required careful navigation in the shade.  The music was on shuffle, and a bunch of great songs came up, but three of them have really stuck with me all week.

I’ve always loved the melody of “All The Right Reasons” by The Jayhawks.  That band has a knack for writing songs that seem so simple, pure, and effortless (but I’ll bet it’s really a lot of hard work).  I was probably thinking subliminally about the geese when my tape-recorder brain picked out this lyric:

Like a tired bird flying high across the ocean
I was outside looking in, you made me live again
From the mountains to the prairies little babies

As far as I know, geese don’t migrate across oceans.  But with a little artistic licence, there is something oddly romantic about the idea of pair-bonded couples settling down in a wide-open field to raise their brood.

A little while later, as I was climbing a hill, “P.S. You Rock My World” by Eels really captured my imagination.  I’ve had those strings and palm-muted guitar sounds swirling through my mottled mind ever since.  Mark Everett, a.k.a. Mr. E, has found a way to turn his personal tragedies into stunningly compelling music.  The lyrics and quietly defiant musical tones of this song seem to implore the listener to put on a brave face and make the best of a bad situation.  “Maybe it’s time to live”, indeed.

Near the end of my stroll, just as my feet were getting sore, “You Were A Kindness” by The National came on.  It’s one of the bonus tracks from the extended version of 2010’s masterpiece High Violet.  The whole song seems to rotate around an axis defined by Matt Berninger’s sombre lead vocal and a beautifully distressed piano motif.  First thing in the morning and last thing at night, as I’m chasing away the ghosts that haunt my soul, I can still feel the resonance of that piano.

You were a kindness when I was a stranger
But I wouldn’t ask for what I didn’t need
Everything’s weird and we’re always in danger
Why would you shatter somebody like me?

Bucket List Bands

Here’s a new challenge.  List ten bands that you have never seen in concert but, given the chance, you would go see in a heartbeat.  A few ground rules:

  • You have never seen the band (or artist) live in concert before, not even as an act opening for someone else.
  • The band (or artist) has to be touring semi-regularly, so defunct bands like R.E.M. don’t count (that’s a different challenge).
  • The band (or artist) has to be alive, so the Jimi Hendrix Experience doesn’t qualify (that’s a different challenge).

I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of great bands over the years, so I don’t have to put legendary acts like R.E.M., Radiohead, Wilco, Muse, Arcade Fire, Pink Floyd, The Police, Rush, Smashing Pumpkins, Neil Young, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen or Eric Clapton on my list.  However, there are still dozens of acts that I would love to see in concert for the first time.

Here’s my ‘bucket list’ of acts I’d like to see at least once in my lifetime, in alphabetical order:

  1. Beck
  2. The Decemberists
  3. Eels
  4. Fleet Foxes
  5. Fountains of Wayne
  6. Peter Gabriel
  7. Guster
  8. Kraftwerk
  9. My Morning Jacket
  10. Secret Machines
  11. The Soundtrack Of Our Lives
  12. Spoon
  13. The Stone Roses
  14. Teenage Fanclub
  15. The Zombies

Okay, so I couldn’t whittle it down to ten bands.  I would go see any act on this list if they played anywhere near my hometown.  A few of them I’d even cross the country to check out.  Road trips rock.

I would love to see The National headline their own show, but I saw them open for R.E.M. in Burnaby a few years ago so they aren’t eligible for this challenge.  Still, I wish I’d noticed The National were playing the Orpheum in Vancouver last November a little sooner, because I would have jumped on a plane for sure.  Maybe later we’ll do an Opening Acts You’d Like To See As Headliners challenge.  Today’s challenge is all about bands you’ve never seen.

Surely you have your own bucket list of bands – just click “Reply” to post them!