Review Summary: Common displays are rare for The National - and perhaps the only way left to uncover more.
Indie music does not succeed through shock. The artist rarely aims to overwhelm the listener with technique or bravado, to sear stark imagery into the minds of their audience, to leave them dumbfounded. If music were the God who speaks in erupting volcanoes and blistering hurricanes, soft indie would be the still small voice that follows - tapered and hushed, but no less great than their dramatic counterparts. It paints a picture, conjures a scenario, draws the mind into another world. It doesn't champion a cause; it merely brings you to a state of mind where you find that cause for yourself.
To that extent, The National are masters of their craft. From the very conception of their name as a blank slate (emphasized, explicitly and ironically, in one of their songs), they have always strove to leave themselves as open-ended as possible. That is not to say that their music isn't about themselves - Berninger 's intricacies and subtle sociopathic ways are well-documented throughout their extensive discography - but they've always been discreet about it. They imply their work through the metaphors and allusions in the poetry of "All the Wine", employing at times cautious minimalism in tracks like "About Today", or even a brash bluff of confidence in "Mr. November". This aspect of their art, their impeccable skill in the discipline of hinting stuff, is what sets them apart from their contemporaries. It is here, however, that their fallibility is also evident; they can appear obvious at times by second-guessing themselves and seeming smart about it, but, like the artist who is too avant garde for his own good, all their smoke and mirrors, while impressive, has the potential to irritate, or worse yet, to bore. It's one thing to make listeners hunt for the treasure in your work, it's another entirely to lead them on a wild goose-chase - though an avid fan, I do confess to having felt the latter more often than I'd like.
With that in mind, Trouble Will Find Me
breaks new ground - by being The National's most intimate record yet. There is real emotion
here now, not just beautiful soundscapes that suggest a point or even the wallow of self-deprecation. Now a focus is explicit, due to a single added factor that trumps all the pity and depressed monologues of before - vulnerability. Opener I Should Live in Salt
leads up by describing haphazard details, but Berninger does something I've never heard him do before and hits the nail on the head in a haunted wail of "I should live in salt for leaving you". Couple that with Demons
, a track steeped in the darkness of his inner turmoil, and you have a transparency that you'd never expect from The National. Self-reflection is evident too, for Matt now laments the presence of the stone-cold denial in a lover in Fireproof
, a trait that he once so unapologetically embodied himself, as in the early "Available". Fear not, this newfound honesty does not see a diminishing in their lyrical quality. I Need My Girl
follows a seemingly pointless paranoid rant which only really makes any sense because of the title - Pink Rabbits
does the exact opposite by attaching a ridiculous name to an otherwise predictable track. The band still approaches their subjects with angles that feel like inside jokes, except this time, coupled with their efforts at openness, you actually do kind of get what the big secret is.
The crux of the matter here is The National's play of the balance between the obvious and the subtle. Lyrics delivered by Berninger's slow croon have always been their trademark, with their lush, beautiful backing remaining indistinctive, and perhaps intentionally so. The treasure of this album, however, truly lies in the instrumentation, which no longer just compliments, but takes a life of its own. All of the abovementioned tracks see the Dessners put out guitar-work that contests for attention, pining with a grief that the lyrics, strongly explicit though they may be, cannot achieve by themselves. The veritable centerpiece of the album, Graceless
, is significantly muffled in its instrumentation compared to when it was previously played live - something that really disappointed me initially. But take a moment with this track and it becomes obvious that its climax in all its splendour could never have been achieved with the open-rock style of Alligator
or even the thunderous rush of "Terrible Love"; the track, through all it's devastating inner turmoil and multiple external fronts of denial, is ultimately a coming out, a confession of brokenness, and, unbelievably, a celebration of that very confession ("Theres a science to walking through windows"). This awesome catastrophe, the rejection of salvation, can only be done justice to by the beautiful mess of music that accompanies it.
Because of the simple fact that they've written their own terms of engagement, The National can do no wrong. Trouble Will Find Me
sees them perfect the pristine audio sheen in their sound by, finally, finally
, celebrating it's flaws. In a band that's always seemed to achieve greatness, the fact that they now don't even sound like they're trying is, all things considered, the next logical step. To let go in this manner, to allow a flaccid impetus into one's work like this would only cripple the product of any good inspiration, but for The National, common displays are rare - the way in which Berninger sings of his ex-love in Hard to Find carries that same theme with quite some accuracy - and for The National, the one-time masters of aggressive apathy, it was perhaps the only way left to uncover more.