Looking for Trouble in All the Right Places
Trouble Will Find Me hearkens back to High Violet, The National’s 2010 album, where perpetually brooding frontman Matt Berninger tells us in his distinctive rumbling baritone, “Sorrow found me when I was young.” And from The National’s extensive discography, it’s easy to understand the band’s long, unraveling history and the various troubles that have always dogged their steps, from their self-titled debut in 2001 (think “29 Years”) to the depressive paranoia of High Violet’s “Afraid of Everyone.” On Trouble, the band’s sixth studio album, the quintet dives deeper into a dense morass of meditative worrying and subdued gloom, and it’s just as wonderfully somber as anyone could wish.
On “Demons,” we hear Berninger announce “I’m going through an awkward phase,” though the album is anything but awkward. The National are masters of apt repetition, using simple sentiments and uncomplicated music to create something powerful and evocative, like the piqued regret on the opening track where Berninger croons, “I should live in salt for leaving you behind,” echoing the biblical pillar of salt, an ancient image of repentance and remorse. Or there’s the despondency of his admission on “Demons,” where he sings over and over, “I stay down with my demons.” It’s the pervasive, deep sadness of someone who has “only two emotions / careful fear and dead devotion,” someone who hopelessly loves a person whose “love is such a swamp,” someone feeling the looming shadow of death. But there’s also a sliver of hope, buried beneath layers of quietly repeating melodies: “Heavenfaced” ends as the National begins to believe, tentatively, that maybe “we’ll all arrive in heaven alive.”
“Demons,” “Don’t Swallow the Cap” and “Sea of Love” sound particularly like the band’s older material, with their gently rolling percussion, light guitars and Berninger’s low, enticing drone. And lyrically, the whole album has the same type of subtle, engaging narratives that earned the band a legion of dedicated fans. (“Don’t Swallow the Cap” could even refer, perhaps unintentionally, to the accident that killed Tennessee Williams, to whom the band’s haunting 2005 song “City Middle” also alludes.) But Trouble Will Find Me also moves forward in The National’s characteristic understated manner, possibly in part to its producers: the band’s own Aaron and Bryce Dessner. “Fireproof” shows the band experimenting slightly with rhythm, its rich blend of piano and fingerpicked guitar melodies in a tripping tempo; a strange 7/4 beat drives “Demons” forward and “I Need My Girl” shuffles along with trilling, syncopated melodies. The album features collaborations with an indie-rock celebrity cast, including Sufjan Stevens, Sharon Van Etten, St. Vincent and members of both Arcade Fire and Dark Dark Dark.
The National’s music only seems to mature and deepen as the band grows older as they face adulthood, fatherhood, marriage and the fear of death with plaintive, moving songs. Here’s to waiting for the next one, to see if trouble will find them and to see where they go next.