This might be one of the most anticipated releases of 2013. The National’s sixth studio release is a beacon of what Brooklyn-based indie rock can offer: it features appearances from Sufjan Stevens, Sharon Van Etten and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry. Following 2010’s highly praised High Violet, Trouble Will Find Me has slowly leaked through a couple of videos released by the band, including the previously covered Sea of Love. Rarely has a band benefited from as much universal critical praise as The National. Their extremely polished yet drunken musings next to classically trained musical parts make for quality releases, in an ocean of manufactured pop revival and pseudo independent singers-songwriters. The National, originally from Ohio, moved to Brooklyn then quit their well-paid jobs in order to give all they had to the band. Now in their mid-30s and enjoying more financial and social stability than they ever have, it is a miracle to find an album like Trouble Will Find Me, which is nothing short of the ground-shaking revelation that not only are they not done with depression, but they are certainly not over their own cynicism yet. It is a wonderful listen and a soul-baring journey.
The National belong to a world of books, a world of educated songwriting appealing to literature-savvy listeners, used to sophisticated references the way Brooklyn darling Lightspeed Champion can. In “Lemonworld”, in 2010, singer Matt Berninger claimed “It will take a better war to kill a college man like me.” This humble definition of what The National ultimately represents – adult, experienced, complex alt rock – is somehow shifting in Trouble Will Find Me. Far from the half political musings of 2008’s Boxer and the transatlanticism of 2010’s High Violet, Trouble Will Find Me reconnects with a more animal, slightly childish, instinctive part of the human brain. They get down to earth in a way that could maybe be even more powerful, if the band hadn’t already been portrayed as a contemporary Joy Division, their only match in the artful depiction of depression. The first song of the album lines “You can’t make me read your mind / You know me better than that”. Is “I should live in salt” a response to all that has ever been said about The National – that their way of digging deep into heartbreak and painful recollections, personified by Matt Berninger’s possessed live performances – was going too far? Is The National more than the soundtrack to everything that has ever hurt anyone? Are we all projecting too much on a band whose personal lives echo nothing that their songs express? Maybe creativity goes beyond the concept of experience. Maybe creativity does need the intensity, but not the first-person recollection of sadness. In fact, we don’t know much about The National, which makes the listening experience even more unique and personal. There is nothing to project but what the lyrics echo within ourselves. “I should live in salt” is stripped bare towards its soft ending, calm, quiet, like the sigh accompanying the period at the end of a sentence. We are in familiar territory.
“I wish I could rise above it / But I stay down with my demons” is such a strong statement delivered in Matt Berninger’s unique baritone voice, a grave and serious foundation on which National songs find their bearings, a low-pitched anchor at the bottom of the sea that color the sky a strange shade of grey. Where most artists of any genre try to reach for greener and higher pastures, elevate themselves towards bigger aspirations, Berninger always talks about sleeping on the floor and feeling small in New York City. There is humility in his comparison to the city, a simple but powerful metaphor that explains why The National appeals to dark, or at least neutral moments. They depict the strangeness of the lack of ambition, the lack of aspiration, the lack of anything lifting us up from the crowd. This is not a band that will make you want to be different or tell you that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The National are merely there to explain that there is nothing unusual about sitting on a bench near Gramercy Park on a rainy wednesday afternoon. The company of your demons is, after all, still company, and we should learn to love what will forever remain with us. There is stability in acceptance. “Everything I love is on the table / Everything I love is out to sea” is The National’s small attempt to wear their hearts on their sleeve; a voice slightly lifted, with a tear in the sound, a knot in the vocal chords – is the album’s less complex but more attainable song. “Don’t Swallow The Cap” is The National as we’ve known them so far: a rhythm section capable of imitating a horse’s fast pace, and a voice that drifts out to sea. Never has a song made me want to pour myself a glass of wine and let the rich undertones fill my mouth and abandon every rational thought. There is abandonment in the song. “I’m not alone / I’ll never be”, sings Berninger, and there is no way to tell whether this is a good or a bad thing. It is up to us to find out why. There lies the power of The National.
The light-headed, restrained accusations in “Fireproof” are laid against picked strings and carefully pressed by the Dressner brothers is a slow-paced confession mixed with a heart suffering tachycardia. “Sea of Love” embarks on a better, bolder song that once again kills slowly with its capacity to peel away at the various layers of heart pains: “Sorry I hurt you but / They say love is a virtue”. Trouble Will Find Me is a story of understanding that there is no pleasure without pain, no love without loneliness and certainly no togetherness without self-assertion. If the beginning of the album could lead us to believe that the narrator was alone and forsaken, “Sea of Love” is an interesting turn that suggests that maybe… maybe he did walk away, decided to retrieve his solitary state out of his own will. Guilt is another interesting underlying tone in The National, the guilt that comes from not being good enough, not fulfilling expectations, not caring for anyone else, choosing alcohol over intoxicating perfume and spending the night staring at the ceiling rather than being productive. “Heavenfaced” is another perfect example: “I could walk out, but I won’t / I wish someone would take my place / I can’t face heaven”. It is somewhat terrible, how on-point Matt Berninger can be when dawns on us the simple fact that there is no such thing as satisfaction. “I need my girl” is a panting, breathless, end-of-the-night ballad; “This is the last time” is it complete opposite, in replacing terrible need with self-assurance. It is a difficult balance to achieve. Van Etten’s voice echoing Berninger’s in this song gives it the ethereal, Goethe-like romanticism that is at the core of The National’s approach to love.
Aaron Dessner said it himself: “The songs on one level are our most complex, and on another they’re our most simple and human. It just feels like we’ve embraced the chemistry we have.” My favorite song might be “Graceless”, where “I took the medicine and I went missing” and pleas to just be able to listen and achieve this state of grace that may be borderline morbid (“Put the flowers you found in a vase / if you die tomorrow they will brighten the place”). Young Werther would have loved The National and their easiness with self-medication, how deadpan they are when talking about pain, their attitude that refuses to be enthusiastic and jolly, so unattainable happiness is at this point. I never thought, when I first became acquainted with their stoic approach to despair in “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers” in 2003, that they could sustain that ideology throughout the forthcoming decade. Logically, when faced with german-era type of romanticism, someone kills themselves before they reach the tender age of 20. There is something extremely finite in permanent in the idea that no one can ever be loved the way they deserved to be, and no one is capable of loving the way they should. But in those simple statements lie the very complexity of human relationships, the issue of empathy, and how we ultimately mirror in a chosen partner what we see in ourselves; and maybe this is how the National has managed such a consistent and successful career, by trying to put words into what we absolutely refuse to consciously acknowledge.
Trouble Will Find Me is anxiety-ridden, yet graceful and extremely humane. The National has managed to be a little more approachable in their songwriting technique, yet retain that incredible capacity to reach places and of the human cortex previously unmarred by an artist’s hand. It takes an incredible band to manage to create such a strong identity through their music and have it remain theirs and theirs only; there is no National fakers in the industry, so hard it would be to claim that prize. Everything becomes more intense after listening to The National; the breeze, the blooming lilacs, the rainfall, a rich bottle of red wine. In its solitude and lovelorn life, The National becomes almost sensual, physically present in all of the little wounds it describes. This deserves to be cherished.
You might want to know that the most fascinating and interesting tour of the five last year will take place in North America in September. The National and Frightened Rabbit (promoting their excellent Pedestrian Verse) will be sharing the bill. Learn more here.