‘The National have created an artistically rewarding niche within modern rock.’
Review by Andrew Tanner.
The National – Trouble Will Find Me (4AD)
For years, I misheard Bob Marley’s vocal in Trenchtown Rock as ‘one good thing about music, when it aches you feel OK’. It seemed a neat summation of the magical ability of some songs to call up the deepest, darkest feelings of human experience whilst paradoxically lifting your spirits. Anyone who’s felt the weight and release of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ knows exactly what I mean.
It’s that kind of curiously uplifting melancholia that’s US outfit The National’s stock in trade. The New York 5-piece built a reputation over 5 albums on lean but clever arrangements, sympathetic ensemble playing and Matt Berninger’s cavernous baritone vocals. Their sixth long player Trouble Will Find Me is the latest instalment in a series of downbeat, navel-gazing song cycles. That’s not a criticism – the new album makes introspection a fun listen.
Mind you, things haven’t gotten much sunnier in singer Matt Berninger’s world. Exhibit A was lead off single ‘Demons’, where the baritone vocalist growls ‘I stay down with my demons’ and bemoans the fact that ‘when I walk into a room I do not light it up – fuck!’ It paints a portrait of an artist wrestling with the demands of a heightened profile – the curious blues of a band that’s actually made it, and feels the weight of expectation.
Other songs pick up the darkened themes. Humiliation is a picture of washed out, emotionally detached suburban ennui – ‘I cried a little, I got fried a little’. ‘I Need My Girl’ is perhaps one of the band’s most naked lyrics. Against a simple looping picked guitar line Berninger’s tone of loss and longing (‘I’m under the gun again’) is affecting. That doesn’t exactly sound like a hootenanny, but seeded amongst the angst are lighter touches, including some sly lyrical nods to Guns ’N’ Roses, Violent Femmes, Elliot Smith & David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
The real revelation on Trouble is in the production. Guitarists and co-producers Aaron and Bryce Dessner have let in more air & light to these songs, with strings utilized heavily throughout to boost the drama or pathos. Hardly a guitar or keyboard goes unreverbed, chords hang suspended and cello and clarinet like tones abound. ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’ (apparently an oblique reference to Tennessee Williams’ untimely death choking on an eye drop bottle cap) is a lovely concoction of strings, infinite guitar notes and swooning keys, while ‘Sea Of Love’ pulses courtesy of an insistent snare drum, building a three chord progression into an epiphany.
Musically The National have always worked hard on little touches that unsettle and build tension. The interrupted grooves of opener ‘I Should Live In Salt’ and ‘Demons’ reflect the tense lyrics, and few of the tracks rely on the usual rock dynamics, preferring to stay restrained. Always building, never cresting.
On the evidence, The National have created an artistically rewarding niche within modern rock. And if the songs on Trouble Will Find Me display a certain unease with the attention that brings, they may just have to get used to it.