Trouble Will Find Me", the sixth album of The National, has arrived. Maybe you’ve noticed, but they are my favourite band, now that R.E.M. called it a day. So there’s no point telling you about my expectations with the record -my warning: this review will be long-. Disk of the year or great disappointment? Extremes of a debate that doesn’t make much sense for a band that has achieved its commercial success gradually and without renouncing its identity signs, in a transition to "first division of indie" accomplished with three consecutive masterpieces, “Alligator”, “Boxer” and “High Violet” -won’t admit any discussion about it-. Identity signs that are more present than ever with this new album, combined with a feeling, confirmed by the group in several interviews, that they have created their new songs in the most relaxed atmosphere of their entire career, more secure than ever of their position as musicians. The result is a calm, self-referential record. To put it simply, no one but The National could make “Trouble Will Find Me”. It's The National's revisited.
The first example that the Ohio-Brooklyn guys are convinced of the path they have chosen, indifferent to pressures and expectations, comes at the very beginning of the record. Three years ago, “High Violet” began with the expansive, explosive “Terrible Love” -only surpassed by its abysmal live version-, one of those tunes ideal for grabbing the attention of any listener, even the lesser fans. One would expect a tune of that magnitude on a LP that should consecrate them as a mediatic band. On the other hand, “Trouble Will Find Me” opens with “I Should Live On Salt”, close to the alternative country sounds of “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers”, and “Demons”, an ode to depression by all means, with a bleak lyric -"Oh, everyday I start so great/Then the sunlight dims [...] When I walk into a room/I do not light it up/Fuck"-. Two magnificent intimate songs where simplicity is the key, also highlighting Matt Berninger's voice, one of the pillars on which this album specially holds onto, sharp and fragile on the first, telluric and gloomy on the second.
The speed increases, without exploding, with “Don't Swallow the Cap”, the second song we discovered as an advance of the album, and the sort of tune where The National excels. The accelerated and elusive rhythm from Bryan Devendorf’s drums, like a beating heart at the moment of maximum tension, escorts the stumbled recitation of Matt while one million small nuances are taking place –among them, although measured, shines the female voice that gives him his replica, still not disclosed if it is Sharon Van Etten, St. Vincent or Nona Marie Invie of “Dark Dark Dark”- colliding in a perfect chorus.
Next comes a new twist towards more delicate and direct territory with “Fireproof”, where the Dessner brothers, armed with acoustic guitars, extend the sonic mantle on which Berninger shoots one of his most vitriolic lyrics -reference to Elliot Smith included-. I don't know if you have had the pleasure -and stomach- to read Richard Yates, but after the ill-fated New York writer, few authors are able to dissect the darker parts of relationships as our bearded frontman does. Resentment transformed into a tune.
Then it is the turn to the also well known “Sea of Love”, where the band shows his more fierce and cathartic side, with a sublime set of "question-answer" with the chorus in the final crescendo, where, in addition to making us salivate imagining how powerful can be this song live, show us an unrecognized feature in their music: the sense of humor -"what Harvard did teach you?"-. Very dark one, of course.
However, “Trouble Will Find Me” clearly leans towards slower numbers and melancholic ballads. “Heavenfaced” and “This Is the Last Time” invite the listener to introspection. But while the first may be among the least remarkable of the album, with a Berninger throwing himself into a chorus too forced, typical of other bands, the second is simply wonderful. Again propped up with acoustic guitars, the tune is elegant, desperate, rich and subtle -the entry of the strings, the female voice, the final minute, etc-. Precious.
In an album much needed of upbeat tunes that serve as a counterpoint to such stillness, “Graceless” is manna dropped from the sky, with its turbulent urge and bleak lyrics -"I took the medicine and I went missing"- which breaks in a coda that is made to be echoed live. Instant anthem. But we return to the usual tone of the record immediately. “Slipped” is a simple theme built around the piano, being its main attraction Berninger, with a lyric -"I don't any help to be breakable, believe me"- debtor of another American literature's master, John Cheever, portraying the sense of frustration of the contemporary human being in everyday stories, though Berninger does not lose his sense of humor-"I'll try to keep my skeleton in"-. Much more significant is “I Need My Girl”, with guitars drawing an ethereal and enveloping atmosphere, resulting in one of the most exciting moments of the album.
And we arrive to the final stretch of “Trouble Will Find Me”, where we find “Humiliation”, a singular song, probably the less recognizable The National has ever written. A crazy, surreal lyric -I insist, the twisted humor of Berninger comes out definitely with this album- in a piece with a special, hypnotic, floating energy, where the particular sensory state of the character described on it fits perfectly with the music, “Blue Velvet’s" coda included.
More conventional, but equally impeccable is “Pink Rabbits”, romantic and emotional with the funereal piano -death is a recurring theme on the album- and that epic end in which seems to be both hope and learning about oneself. On the other hand, the actual closing of the record comes with the more discreet “Hard to Find”, solemn and beautifully orchestrated, but inconspicuous after the previous piece.
Compared with their three previous albums, “Trouble Will Find Me” surely loses out, due to a couple of tunes that doesn’t add much and to the accumulation of slow songs on a long album. Certainly, those who seek “Alligator's” visceral mood, or the fascinating repressed turbulence of “Boxer” will be disappointed. Also those who were waiting for a collection of “Bloodbuzzed Ohio” or “Terrible Love”, definitely opening them the gates of the charts. But The National have opted to follow his own path, preferring for complex compositions where small details prevail, and with a few exceptions, where the outstanding songs are not obvious, but there to be discovered and assimilated by the listener. In short, it may rate a bit lower than its predecessors, or it may not be the indisputable masterpiece we are used to receive from them. But it’s an excellent record (another one to add to an already mind blowing career) from a unique band.
Sorry about the long post. This was a special review for me.