Review Summary: Dim the lights.
After twelve or so years of The National’s existence, we’ve finally reached the point where the first paragraph of every review should be dedicated to drummer Bryan Devendorf. Even after the gradual softening of the band’s music over the last three albums, he is still capable of transporting songs to different realms, using his snare drum as a portal through which yet more beautiful plateaus stretch. Trouble Will Find Me
gives him fewer chances to do so, but that only makes it all the more exciting when it happens, when he tears in half the many layers of The National’s music and redefines what we thought we were hearing. The first time happens quite early, in opener “I Should Live In Salt,” right before the second verse. It’s what made me fall in love with the song before I was even halfway through.
But as good as he and the rest of the musicians remain, it’s hard to tell if, as a whole, Trouble Will Find Me
is a classic like the last three National albums. Certainly their approach seems different: most of the time the band sounds as if they were seeing how much they could dilute a song while still having it pack a punch. It generally works, like with “Slipped,” where the instruments very gradually impede upon Matt Berninger’s vocals, or with “Demons,” which somehow contains a subtle energy that simply shouldn’t be present in a song with that kind of precise pacing. But “Heavenfaced” doesn’t work as well; despite the beautiful way the piano and drums dance around each other, and Berninger’s bare lyrical honesty (“If you lose me, I’m gonna die”), the song never really ascends into that stratospheric territory where most of The National’s songs reside. I can’t help but think, “If they had added another minute…,” or, “If they had added just one more instrument…” Those thoughts are echoed in a few other places on the album, and I hate that urge to be a backseat composer, but still I can’t shake them.
In spite of that, this album is yet another amazing work from a vitally important band with a vitally important frontman. For all of Devendorf’s signature verve, the music on Trouble Will Find Me
is structured in a way that makes Matt Berninger the album’s MVP. He’s always been a good singer, but there is an urgent frailty to his voice on this album. He sings every line as if they had
to be sung. Maybe they did. Hearing the last word of the absolutely jaw-dropping bridge of “Demons” - that strained “fu
ck” that has been imbued by Berninger with such pain - is like listening to the encapsulation of every National album, of everything they’ve ever tried to convey with their music. Not much on this album is immediate, and that’s a little disappointing, but more than any other National work, Trouble Will Find Me
hints at depths upon depths hidden beneath the surface of thirteen very pretty songs. In “Pink Rabbits,” when Berninger sings, “You didn’t see me/I was falling apart/I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park,” there is something in his voice, something in the music, that makes the words heavy as hell. The meaning of the line seems so obvious
when you read it, but to hear
it is to know that it must mean something else, something more. And I don’t suppose I know what it is, but I know it’s something true.