by DREW MALMUTH
On Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, Matt Berninger said that “if she knows you’re paper, she’ll know she has to burn you.” His lyrics are filled with sentiments that can’t be ascribed to Berninger himself, yet, in light of how The National has progressed over the last decade, this line feels distinctly personal. It neatly expresses the deep insecurity that comes with showing someone what kind of person you are. Throughout their early output, The National seemingly struggled to play the exact music that they wanted to play, caught up in a balance of expectations, aspirations, and creative tendencies. The National sounds like an entirely different band because in many ways it was. Berninger wanted to be like Stephen Malkmus and the angst and anger of youth pervaded the sound. When Alligator was released in 2005, bringing with it critical praise and a devoted fan base, no one could have predicted that that album would now be looked at as a classic embodiment of the band’s unpolished roots. It was hard to know exactly what was coming. Boxer was restrained and powerful in a way that made it seem as though this was the music the band had been hoping to make all along. High Violet continued that trend. Looking back, the Cherry Tree EP was the first indication of what was to come – a full-throated embrace of emotive melodies, morose lyricism, and pouring wine on fans.
Trouble Will Find Me may draw on some of the creativity of their early work, but it is firmly rooted in the sound that the band has so assuredly developed over the last two albums. The members have said that this album is more complex and aggressive, suggesting a noticeable departure from High Violet. But this characterization may say more about the members’ relationships to their music than it does about the album itself. For most fans, Trouble Will Find Me will not sound like a departure at all. The songs are still filled with swaying masses of melody, being drawn in and out of precise drumming and subtly crafted guitar lines by Matt Berninger’s impossibly deep growl. There is a blend of anthemic numbers and gorgeous slow burners. Wry, ingenious lyrics abound. But the members of The National still find vast differences because they have formed a nuanced understanding of what they are trying to do. For them, playing “I Should Live in Salt” in 7/8 or putting Sufjan Stevens’ drum machines on “I Need My Girl” is a drastic change in chemistry. Like a mom knowing her child is stoned when no one else does, Trouble Will Find Me may feel more aggressive for The National because they have become increasingly in tune with and dedicated to their craft. In this way, Trouble Will Find Me is not a surprising listen; it is an excellent album from a band that only gets better with age.
The album as a whole feels familiar but it is filled with unique moments that inevitably change character over time. “I Should Live In Salt” doesn’t immediately feel like an opener, but the dramatic pauses caused by the time signature and the ethereal voices in the chorus slowly start to congeal into a sturdy entry point for the album. “Demons” underlies its approachable melody with convoluted guitar and piano work and Berninger’s depressive lyrics (“When I walk into a room I do not light it up”) are ultimately smile-inducing (“Fuck”). This focus on subtlety contributed to some of the more gorgeous songs on the album. Effortlessly simple, “Slipped” follows one of Berninger’s many alter egos as her nostalgia and feelings of inadequacy unfold alongside the pulsating piano line. There is a quiet moment after the first chorus that sets up a real heartbreaker: “I don’t need any help to be breakable, believe me.” If you’re searching for pockets of emotional resonance, as most fans of The National are, that line is a good place to start. Similarly, “This Is The Last Time” offers swirly moments of escapism, with the addition of a catchy melody and a hypnotic final minute.
Other tunes don’t have the immediacy of a “Mr. November,” but, after a week to absorb them, it is easy to imagine Matt kicking some lucky kid in the head during the breakdowns. “Don’t Swallow the Cap” (maybe a reference to Tennessee Williams’ unfortunate demise) slowly builds into an anthemic ending, combining lush string arrangements with eery distortion and Bryan Davendorf’s cyclical drum work. It’s an odd melding of styles – Davendorf drums like he’s in Can; the Dessner brothers play delicate, sly melodies; Matt sings with an intimate intensity – but it works, and I’m not sure it ever won’t. “Sea of Love,” “Graceless,” and “Humiliation” follow in a similar pattern, but each has its own dimensions. On “Humiliation” Matt sings “all the L.A women fall asleep while swimmin/ I got paid to fish ‘em out, then one day I lost the job/ and I cried a little/ I got fried a little/ and she laid her eyes on mine and said ‘babe, you’re better off’” The bouncy absurdity of the lyrics play perfectly into the energy of the song, and it may be the most overtly hilarious image Berninger has created since dancing on a table with a cock in one’s hand. It shows how much The National’s songs can hinge on the atmosphere created by the lyrics. On moments of “Heavenfaced” and “Hard to Find” the vocals venture too close to an aging-arena-rock-star aesthetic and the songs lose some of the unfiltered character that makes them feel authentic.
But when Berninger strikes the right tone – and he usually does – his lyrics rank among the most clever being written today. Bryce Dessner mentioned that Matt spends a lot of time reading John Cheever. Cheever, a writer that builds deep emotional intensity from a seemingly mundane course of events, is in many ways a perfect point of comparison for Berninger’s writing. The way central characters search desperately for significance but often end up where they began (“Demons”); the unsatisfying nature of love (“Sea of Love”); the feeling of pointlessness that so often accompanies being human (“Slipped”). All these Cheever themes show up in the lyrics of Trouble Will Find Me; Cheever with his gin and suburban dysfunction and Berninger with his wine and apocalyptic imagery. The difference is that where Cheever was generally unsatisfied with his work and spent a lot of his time drinking himself to near suicide, Matt feels privileged to be able to wallow in his own sadness. He mentioned in an interview that when he thinks of a fun record he thinks of all that “dark, grim stuff.” For him, “Sorrow” was a playful jaunt. It is this embrace of emotion, in all its complexities, that has made The National the band that it is.
Alligator is in many ways The National’s most exciting album. Its spastic, feverish tracks showed a knack for spirited songwriting that few albums have been able to match since. Some may hope to find that band on Trouble Will Find Me. They’ll be disappointed. But what they’ll find instead is a collection of remarkable songs by a group of musicians that compliment one another as well as any group over the last decade. The National are a product of their past experiences, and all the better for it. [A-]
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