So the build up to the National’s new album had expectation on the maximum, with youtube comments galvanising into something like ‘I’m looking forward to crawling up in some National and staying there for the summer’. And as the released songs gradually ticked all those expected boxes many people seemed satisfied with the emotional burrows they had prepared for it. But a few months on when the dust has settled perhaps gives a better perspective on Trouble Will Find Me’s true worth.
The first problem is exactly that the National has ticked these boxes: as in fulfilling an expectation on what they should be giving. It fills the National quota of having a good opener ‘I Should Live in Salt’- a tamer, yet still effective parallel to their previous opening songs such as ‘Fake Empire’ and ‘Terrible Love’. Then later down the line is the solid anthem that gives the album a core from which the other songs can orbit around. There was ‘Apartment Story’ for Boxer and ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ for High Violet and here it is ‘Sea of Love’. Then near the end there’s the closing ballad in the form of ‘Pink Rabbits’ maintaining the National’s gloomy cloud, yet allowing a crack of light to pierce through offering hope until the next album. And so everyone goes home as satisfied like a regular patron who always enjoys eating the same meal at his favourite restaurant. Of course my drift is hopefully becoming clear that The National have become a bit samey.
Yet there’s a counter-argument to this that the National has earned the space they’ve now settled in, having struggled for many years to receive attention and finally achieving their commercial success with their previous album High Violet. For this reason some would say that they are entitled to revisit familiar tropes such as thirty-something-domestics (‘There’s some things I should never laugh about in front of family’) or getting the Dessner twins to help wrap up the vocals to a song. And to a point this is valid: every great nation has to develop it’s homeland after it has expanded its borders. Yet upon further listening it appeared to me that the band wasn’t so much fortifying as clumsily dismantling what it had already established.
To start, the lyrics are sub-par. While before Matt Berninger was able to carefully balance between sentimentality and portentousness such as in ‘Cardinal Song’ and ‘Slow Show’- now he tumbles into both camps. The whole of ‘I Need my Girl’ could have been written by a pseudo-romantic sixteen year old who has to go on a family holiday and leave his girlfriend for a week. Likewise ‘Sea of Love,’ an otherwise good song, makes me cringe in despair when Berninger mumbles the single line “I believe”. On the other hand Berninger’s tries maintaining image as the polite self-effacing middle-aged man out of a New York novel. He croons ‘I survived the dinner,’ mutters seemingly deep truisms like ‘everything I love is on the table’ and keeps on seeming to nag his friends to let him sleep on their floor.
The other factor is the instrumentation. This is what would make many consider that Trouble Will Find Me is a great album. And to be fair they do the job. ‘This Is the Last Time’ has a great riff, and ‘Graceless’ gives a nice chill down the spine. Moreover, Berninger’s voice has reached a satisfying plateau of baritone, and usually progresses it towards a gripping chorus. But then there are moments that don’t seem as fluid. Occasionally it’s advantageous, such as the extra chord in ‘I Should Live in Salt’ that really makes the song. Other times they jar, such as the unimaginative finger-picking of ‘I Need My Girl’ or the over-aggressiveness of ‘Sea of Love’.
I think the key irritation that this album gives, and which too many review sites try forgiving it for, is the evident gap between emotion and material. It is as if The National are trying to make an anthem out of a roll of duct tape and some paper clips that were lying round the office. It betrays a sense of negligence that insults both their now large fan-base, and suggests that the band has become a bit careless with their new found fame. It is as if as long as they describe someone drunk and crashing a car in the garden, and then sing the chorus long enough until the audience gets its fix. I say this because The National have produced some amazing songs, and have still come out with a good album. The worry is that it is not a spectacular album. But many people, who have invested a lot of emotional baggage in the band’s music are trying to convince themselves that it is, and to paraphrase the National song: ‘it’s probably best not to swallow the cap while you’re enjoying your medicine’