Sunday, June 2, 2013

"Trouble Will Find Me" Continues The National's Winning Streak

Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers was released in 2003 and since then, The National have been on a roll, putting out fantastic album after fantastic album.  Consistency is a hard thing when you're a band.  As time goes on, it's difficult to find new ideas, the group's rhythm can change -- any number of variables could alter slightly and completely mess up the formula.  With all of this to consider, bands are lucky to have two great albums back to back, let alone a handful.  What's even more remarkable about The National's output is that each of their albums have a slightly different voice while still maintaining their signature sound.  Trouble Will Find Me is no different, somehow finding a new shade to their sonics without overly tweaking the dynamic.

Once again, lead singer Matt Berninger is one of the main draws on this album, delivering his deep croon that's as sonorous and probing as ever.  Lyrically, he's always taken on the role of the glassy-eyed observer -- numb, but desperate to feel something again.  Here, he brings a little bit of everything.  There's the bizarre lyrics that recall the days of Alligator, like "I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park."  Then songs like "Humiliation" return to that middle aged ennui from Boxer that Berninger knows so well.  Elsewhere, High Violet can be seen in the damaged soul pondering that appears in the many references to heaven and demons on songs like "Graceless," "Heavenfaced," and "Demons."  In fact, Trouble Will Find Me is an apt name given how much the entire album is filled with this sense of cosmic unluckiness.  Loss is the pervasive feeling on the album, with many of the songs concerning themselves with losing your job, your youth, and the one you love.  On "Demons," Berninger sings about losing the battle with depression, trying so hard to be positive but being unable to get past what's plaguing you.  There's a world-weariness that slumps on to every National song, but it clouds Trouble Will Find Me even more, as if the band is just getting too old for the city they live in.

As wide-ranging and all-encompassing as the lyrical style and themes are, the band has decided to streamline the actual music this time around.  Usually, they swaddle the naked emotion of their lyrics in beautifully ornate arrangements, but Trouble Will Find Me strips things down to the essentials.  This bare-bones approach just makes the stakes higher and the drama all the more direct.  The production feels stormy, but like those approaching minutes where the sky is a gray smudge and the downpour is momentarily just a threat and not reality.  There are moments when it does thunder though, as seen at the end of "Sea of Love" and "Humiliation."  Drummer Bryan Devendorf is the group's not-so-secret weapon, and he's forced to restrain himself far too often, but the cathartic moments where he gets to let loose are the highlights of the album.  There's just an excellent accumulation of feelings and ideas on this record -- I always start it skeptical and by the end of the 55 minutes of slow emotional erosion, I've come around to finding it a satisfying experience.

Is "satisfying" enough when it comes The National, one of the best bands of the last decade?  Trouble Will Find Me never reaches the heights of Boxer, the band's best, and it always feels like you're waiting for the songs to hit another gear, but they never do.  Usually, The National are like alcohol -- you have to take a few sips and wait a little while before the intoxication sets in.  With this one, the songs don't reveal much more nuance on repeat listens.  Even if it's their least accomplished album in the last 10 years, Trouble Will Find Me is pretty great nonetheless, and a sign that The National are still one of the most consistent bands in rock music.

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