In terms of both critical credibility and popular acclaim, The National’s stock has been steadily rising since the release of 2007 breakthrough album Boxer, and after 2010’s much-loved High Violet, it has for the first time become fashionable to like them. The band has risen from respectable alt country casualty to gold-standard indie rock royalty over a career spanning 16 years, including six albums, two presidential campaigns (the band performed at rallies for President Obama in 2008 and 2012), seemingly endless touring and a phenomenal amount of grit and determination.
For those that aren’t quite up to speed, The National is a five-piece from Brooklyn, comprising two sets of brothers (Aaron and Bryce Dessner, guitars; Scott and Bryan Devendorf, bass and drums respectively) and vocalist Matt Berninger. The National trade in traditional guitar-led indie rock with a rustic, green-fingered element which has seen them become associated with other artists from the alternative folk scene, such as Beirut, Sufjan Stevens and Sharon Van Etten. The clearest comparison however, has been drawn with Canadian globe-conquerors Arcade Fire, whose similar taste for the indie-folk crossover has seen them develop into, arguably, the biggest band in the world. The National, who share a penchant for the softly anthemic, are thought by many to be the next in line to the throne.
The National operate as two separate teams. On the one hand, the compositional, led by the Dessners; and on the other, the lyrical, left solely to Berninger. While the music is key to the band’s appeal, and the Dessners rarely receive due credit for their faultless production, it has always been the band’s front man who has stolen the headlines. Berninger’s surrealist lyrics paint intriguingly vague, mysteriously open-ended images of his own embittered, entangled and estranged psyche, and are delivered with a fumbled awkwardness which gives him an added romantic appeal. Sometimes humorous, sometimes vengeful, often heart-breakingly sad, but always beautifully poignant, Berninger has a genuinely original poetic style.
On Trouble Will Find Me, these two elements of The National’s sound combine again to great effect. Aaron and Bryce, whose production credits span the likes of Local Natives and the Kronos Quartet, expertly manoeuvre the album between moments of aching sorrow and frenetic release, with more of the orchestral backing seen on High Violet used beautifully in both the slower and energetic numbers. The Dessners’ compositions are as strong as ever, evoking the pain and sadness of Berninger’s loser-rock eulogies with lilting piano ballads such as “Heavenfaced”, “Slipped” and “Hard to Find”. Elsewhere, they even out the mood with high-octane, cannon-ball singles like “Sea of Love”, featuring thrashed guitars and barked chorus shout-alongs.
Berninger meanwhile, is more gloom-laden than ever, recounting troubled memories from a string of relationships with a trio of name-dropped lovers (Jenny, Grace and Jo). Fictional creations perhaps but no less affecting, such is Berninger’s ability to take a very personal emotion and convert it into something relatable. On previous releases, Berninger’s phraseology has often appeared clunky and confusing on first listen, a string of gibberish images thrown together randomly which took a while to tease out a meaning. On Trouble, Berninger is markedly more direct. On “Pink Rabbits” he encapsulates the agony of being overlooked by a loved one: ‘You didn’t see me I was falling apart/I was a television version of a person with a broken heart’. And on “This Is the Last Time”, he reminisces on the emotional pull of a fraught relationship: ‘Oh but your love is such a swamp/You’re the only thing I want/And I said I wouldn’t cry about it’.
A couple of the tracks do feel slightly formulaic and are consequently underwhelming compared to the album’s many highlights. “Demons” sees Berninger plumb the depths of despair, vowing to ‘stay down with my demons’, but it comes off like an overly-morbid comic parody of a National song. The same could be said of “Graceless” which features lines like: ‘I’m trying but I’m graceless/You can’t imagine how I hate this’ and ‘I am not my rosy self/I left my roses on my shelf’. This is the criticism that certain voices have made of Trouble: that it sees another neatly-produced fully-functioning National album roll off the factory line, without anything really fresh. Both the melodies and the lyrical themes are tried and tested, and the whole thing comes over as somewhat automatic.
As a fan of the band, I recognise and accept these criticisms, though I disagree that the album as a whole is plagued with complacency. It’s only in places that certain chord progressions or lyrical motifs felt slightly familiar, and this didn’t seriously dent my overall enjoyment of the album. Admittedly this isn’t as big a jump as High Violet was from Boxer, but only by The National’s high standards is this merely a very good album as opposed to a great one. On Trouble Will Find Me, The National retain their privileged position at the very top of their field, and add another accomplished work to their glowing résumé.
…Jack is listening to Cat Power – ‘You Are Free’