Review Summary: The National finally slip and it's not quite as disastrous as you'd expect.
In light of other artists, it’s almost comical how The National approached the release of one of the most anticipated albums of 2013. Daft Punk had an extensive, slick marketing campaign and Boards of Canada made detectives out of their audience, meanwhile The National released a couple of tracks on their YouTube channel and played “Sorrow” for six hours. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to use understated than comical, but the success of this muted effort in the light of such excess can only be seen as funny. It’s like a friend I once had who, when asked in an engineering class to make a paper braking system for a toy car, scrunched the paper up in the rough shape of a cock, lazily strapped it to the front with half a roll of tape and ended up doing better than everyone else.
It’s a humour suiting The National, whose frontman Matt Berninger’s lyrics have always dripped with a quirky and self-deprecating glaze. This is a band who have never seen themselves as superstars despite releasing three critically acclaimed albums in a row. Neither have The National caved in to pressure by settling in any one style, and since hitting their stride halfway through Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers
they’ve never looked back or stumbled. Until now, that is.
It isn’t a fall or trip, but a pause to look back on the last few releases and say: “Jesus, they were pretty good weren’t they? We should do more.” It’s a sentiment which leaves many parts of Trouble Will Find Me
feeling more like a reflection than a push forward: caught between the opposite motifs of their discography like a man tied to separate horses by each limb. With the carefree romanticism of Alligator
on the left arm and High Violet
’s dark, abstract imagery on the right, this is an album at risk of being torn apart like Sean Bean in Black Death
They pull it off, in a distinctly The National kind of way, but the listener is left confused by the band’s opposing directions. The album starts well, with initial single “Demons” helping set if off with a dark and gritty showcase of Matt’s talent for lyricism. He nonchalantly bats out confessions and secrets like he always has, and by this point in his career it’s a surprise he has any left, which makes the brilliant (though not quite rhyming) “I am secretly in love with/ everyone I grew up with” all the more profound. “Don’t Swallow the Cap” continues this line of self-pity and depreciation, while also following it up with a fittingly catchy, groan-led chorus. In their brooding nature, these two singles mark the most obvious evolution of High Violet
: an older, more mature The National playing older, more mature music for those as dejected as they are.
And then the rest of the album starts, with results ranging all the way from extraordinary to lackluster and, in every case, betraying the trajectory of The National’s discography to offer an emotionally open experience. On the end of the former, energetic and dramatic “Heavenface” leads the charge as Matt explores the higher limits of his voice and music rises to join him in a sweet, yet characteristically morbid fanfare to “I believe her, I’m a griever now.” If this sounds a little sweet for The National, it would be because it is. “Heavenface” has just enough wit to pull it off, choosing to undermine the tone with less than sweet lyrics. However, this betrays the main problem to be found in Trouble Will Find Me
: the sweetness carries on with a lack of wit to cover it. “Hard to Find” and “Fireproof” are beyond help as their tone descends into sickly, resulting in two glossy Alligator
b-sides without the presence of an “All the Wine” to tragically undercut them. Elsewhere, a song might stick too closely to an off-puttingly chirpy melody for a few bars too long, or even retreat to tired phrases about some girl of some importance doing something long ago. This couldn’t be any more different to the dark and restrained sentiment of the two singles: it feels just a little off.
Despite this, it is important to remember who we’re talking about here. The National are well within the realms of indie-rock royalty, so a bad day for them would be a great day for another, and most of the praise towards them is left out because it’s all been said a thousand times before. However, Trouble Will Find Me
is simply missing a few key ingredients previously taken for granted and it’s these subtle losses which dramatically change The National’s image. Ironically, the band describe this quite well with “Slipped,” which despite being directed at a girl and not the audience does a good job at portraying Matt’s admittance of being far from perfect. For a moment the illusion slips and we see a five piece rock band playing five piece rock band music: it’s all incredibly disappointing to fans expecting an impossible level of perfection.
So taken on its own merits, as an album by a band and not by the fictitious force known as The National, Trouble Will Find Me
is a great album. Sure, they didn’t really know where they were going with this release, Matt’s narrative voice jumps all over the place and it’s a little cheesy in moments, but that doesn’t stop the parts where the band still manage to shine at their brightest, as well as the immediate benefits this new, less convoluted style brings. But in becoming more open, The National lose the key ingredient of mystery and fantasy which previously allowed fans to piece together their own meaning. Trouble Will Find Me
is then left as a good album instead of a fantastic one, and from our A* reference point it’s hard not to see this as a bad thing.