Posted on May 16th, 2013 (7:30 am) by Paul Rice

I saw The National at Lollapalooza in 2008, still touring for 2007's career-defining Boxer. I remember being in awe the tension of “Squalor Victoria,” and the riveting catharsis of “Abel” and “Mr. November,” and the melancholy beauty of “Fake Empire.” The National were unstoppable then. But after their set, some of my friends put on jaded faces and said it was just okay, not as good as when they'd seen them at a little bar a couple months earlier. But the venue wasn't what made the difference for them - it was Matt Berninger's mood. They said he was too happy at Lollapalooza. At the other gig, he embodied his sour and sullen lyrical persona perfectly; at Lollapalooza he was in good spirits, which took the bite out of his performance. A relaxed, content National just wasn't as fun to watch.

I didn't give that opinion much credit until my first listen through the new Trouble Will Find Me. As much as I wanted to love the album, it was clear from the beginning that this was not another great National record. All the pieces seemed to be there – Matt's baritone voices delivering boozy lyrics that cut and lament and ramble in equal measure. The Dessner brothers are still inventive composers and subtle musicians with no shortage of ideas, and the Devendorf brothers are one of the tightest, most technical rhythm sections in indie rock. But something's clearly wrong.

“I Should Live In Salt,” opens the album with acoustic strums and a disorienting rhythm – not at all the powerhouse opener we've come to expect from The National, but interesting enough. But then the following “Demons” broods in 7/4 time (they must have really let the drummer go on this one) without really going anywhere, and you start to wonder, frankly, where The Nationals' balls went. “Don't Swallow The Cap” kicks up the tempo a little, but feels strangely light, lasting almost five minutes with neither a memorable hook nor a clearly conveyed emotion. “Fireproof” cements the bad first impression as Matt Berninger sings “You're fireproof / Nothing can break your heart” with no conviction or energy over a chord progression that has to be recycled from some Boxer outtake. “Sea of Love” comes as a breath of fresh air, a dynamic, rushing song that offers a fresh take on those hard-earned, triumphant choruses that punctuated Alligator. If it doesn't make you wish you'd just started the album from track five, you're a very loyal fan and The National ought to mail you a signed bottle of cheap wine.

What happened? These guys used to be on top of the world; High Violet was essentially a victory lap for having conquered moody, introverted indie rock. In retrospect, the roots of the problem can be traced back to High Violet – specifically, the extra disc of B-sides from the expanded edition, which contained an alternate version of “Terrible Love” that was less produced, and closer to how they played it live. The National have always had a way of letting their songs gradually froth and boil over where another band might have them explode, but on High Violet those boiling climaxes were softer, more textured than before. That alternate “Terrible Love” is how the old National would have recorded it, but they were stepping into more subtle territory. It worked on High Violet, but on Trouble Will Find Me their edges are dulled to the extreme. Several entire songs float by without any of the instruments stepping forward and making an impression. They might be playing interesting things, but the production blurs everything together so much that the music hardly sounds like it was made by five guys with instruments anymore.

The overproduction is a problem, but it's not the main problem; it's only exacerbated by a shift in Matt Berninger's lyrics and delivery. On Alligator and Boxer, it was never quite clear what he was singing about, but his bitter, weary worldviews and bewildering metaphors were delivered with the intensity of a man going through intense and vivid pain. To listen to The National was to participate in a character study of a man who goes through violent mood swings and will speak effusively on everything except what's really hurting him. If there was any pretense to his lyrics, it was perfectly concealed, because he sang pain like people in pain actually talk: chaotically, vaguely, brutally honest in the smallest doses. Trouble Will Find Me's “Slipped” summarizes Berninger's shift succinctly: “I keep coming back here where everything slipped / But I will not spill my guts out.” The protagonist of these songs isn't happy by any means, but he's keeping his feelings at a distance now. Instead of singing through his frustration and despair, he's singing about it, and the difference is clear. For the first time, Berninger's emotional range is narrower than his vocal range, and without it, he's no longer that charismatic loser that kept us coming back to his songs to figure him out. His core may still burn with emotion, but that he's singing from a safe place instead of from right in the middle of it.

It needs to be stated that Trouble Will Find Me is not a terrible album. After “Sea Of Love” the album gains a shambling momentum as growers like “Graceless” and “Humiliation” take surprising shifts that make their endings a lot more rewarding than their beginnings suggest, which is what we love to expect from The National. “This is the Last Time” and “Pink Rabbits” showcase Berninger singing more melodically than ever, and if you forgive him for not mustering the frenzied desperation that he used to, the songs on the second half are pretty emotionally resonant. Ultimately, the best thing this record may do for The National's career is, through its weaknesses, to solidify what made their other albums so good. The National have always been musically talented and unique enough to deserve some attention, so are lots of bands. It's that old-fashioned intensity, the feeling that this band needs to play this song, and this man needs to sing these words, that made The National so incomparable for a while. It's sadly absent on Trouble Will Find Me, but it's the only thing that's missing, and if they can find it again, they'll be welcome back on the top.

Track List:
1. I Should Live In Salt
2. Demons
3. Don't Swallow The Cap
4. Fireproof
5. Sea of Love
6. Heavenfaced
7. This Is The Last Time
8. Graceless
9. Slipped
10. I Need My Girl
11. Humiliation
12. Pink Rabbits
13. Hard To Find

The National - Trouble Will Find Me
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

68 / 100
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