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The National – Trouble Will Find Me (2013)

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Posted May 22, 2013 by

The National are a group with no pressure to change. Matt Berninger’s deeply somber baritone seems right at home over the band’s current arsenal of guitar-driven murmurs and narrative deadpans about societal disappointment and lost loves, and they have churned out quality albums like clockwork since their 2001 self-titled debut. Their sixth, Trouble Will Find Me, has no intention of breaking that streak. It’s a wildly consistent album that hones in on what The National do best; they create willfully engaging songs with prominent streaks of yearning dramatics, led by a voice that sounds perpetually down in the gutter. Berninger plays a large role here, and that results in a very accessible release, one that is a good place to start for newcomers to The National.

The theme of clinging onto nostalgia, and the ensuing repercussions, runs freely throughout Trouble Will Find Me. “I am secretly in love with everyone I grew up with,” Berninger sings with a deadpan smirk on “Demons”, which almost resembles late-era Springsteen in its nonchalant narrative approach. The chorus’ transition, where Berninger ticks his range up just enough for discretion, subtly advances for grand effect. It’s a practice the group is familiar with. “Humiliation” succeeds on a similar level, with mounting ambient effects co-existing alongside a chugging guitar rhythm. When the chorus hits with its warm organs, Berninger emits a wordless croon of sorts every few moments, providing resounding melodic impact to a track that already reaps from a strong initial presentation.

The National are one of the best in the biz at transitioning moody hooks. However, even in their impressive catalog, few can compare in overall beauty to the breathtaking “This is the Last Time”, which has an extremely moving string-laden interlude where Berninger’s vocals are accompanied by angelic female harmonies. Its coda is one of The National’s finest hours; Berninger pleas to “Jenny” as the female vocals gradually reflect his own, singing “it takes a lot of pain to pick me up.” It begins to resemble the most heartrending rock opera known to man, before it fades suddenly on the heels of melancholic strings. This is an absolutely stunning effort; it’s one of the finest examples of the group’s songwriting, as well as Berninger’s vocals – which have much more range than initially let on.

Tales of lost love, and those who have forgotten past feelings that one still values, continue to resonate throughout the album. “Don’t Swallow the Cap” touts a fascinating instrumental arsenal led by downtempo keys and string flourishes, both allowing Berninger to express some of the most dramatic vocals on the album. “Everything I love is on the table, everything I love is out to sea,” he sings, the line usually accompanied by strings. On the more delicate side, “Heavenfaced” is laced with whole-noted piano droplets, yet again allowing Berninger to stretch out his vocals. “If you lose me, I’m gonna die,” he croons here, again touching on feelings of loss and remoteness. Just as the track seems like it’s going nowhere, a transition at 02:15 marks an upbeat transition to soaring relief, where words of optimism like “believer” take over as guitar crackles and pianos converge for trickling beauty.

Such narrative twists may seem necessary to advance a track, but The National’s execution is so masterfully thought-out that their roles as poetic punctuations remain one of the band’s strongest suits. “Loss” or some variation continues to be repeated, but rarely without a twist that shifts the mood into one of optimism, or at least retrospective hope. These twists help maintain the album’s accessibility and thematic delivery, even on those that suffer some melodic inadequacy. Despite not a truly bad track on Trouble Will Find Me, there are several efforts that stray within a safe zone for too long. “Graceless” remains overly idle with its percussive stutter, and although a final minute victory lap results in heavier emotions and consequential distortion it isn’t enough to stand up to other, stronger efforts throughout Trouble Will Find Me. And there are many of them, from the stunning heartbreak of “This is the Last Time” to the twangy tell-all “I Need My Girl”, where Berninger seems proud to wear his eroding emotions on his sleeve. This is nothing new for The National, who have the ability to turn feelings of loss, inadequacy, and longing nostalgia into poetic and spine-tingling memoirs. And like the greatest texts, there are a variety of twists and hooks to keep things enthralling below the surface. The subtext within The National’s compositions continues to mesmerize.

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Mike Mineo

I'm the founder/editor of Obscure Sound, which was formed in 2006. Previously, I wrote for PopMatters and Stylus Magazine. Send your music to [email protected].

One Comment


    “Safe zone for too long” sums up this entire album for me. I was hoping this would be the first entire album of 2013 I would enjoy as every previous album by The National has usually been a highlight of the year. It’s not doing it for me though. It’s too monochromatic and mundane. The emotional highs and tempo changes just aren’t there. It’s not a bad album, especially compared to most music these days but I’ll probably listen to it when I’m reading or relaxing and that’s about it.

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