Okay, so I love the National. No need to look at me like that. I know it’s weird to like a band who play songs that you can legitimately call songs. I know it’s pretty out there to like a band that puts out records of 11-13 tracks, each around 4 minutes in length, all of which have vocals. I mean, come on, vocals? How boring, am I right?
I am well aware that a majority of people reading this are probably glad that I’m pretty much done with this “bit”. But I should forewarn you, this review continues to be horrendously meta, but I think there’s a payoff at the end, so hold on to your hats, and if you don’t now have one to hand, stop reading, and go find one for goodness sake…
This year, which is to say Twenty-Thirteen Anno Domini, a band called the National commercially released a collection of music called “Trouble Will Find Me”, which contains precisely thirteen audio tracks of which all thirteen are recordings of songs they have written. This much is true.
There’s a place beyond truth, beyond objectivity, called subjectivity. This is where opinions thrive, and that is all fine and dandy. But as anyone who knows me well enough by now understands, I’m obsessed with two things. One is obsession. The other is the border between objective and subjective, where that line is drawn, and how people view reality as a result. Is there a point where one can say a piece of art is objectively X, Y and Z, and if these qualities are of value to you, perhaps this art may be of interest? I think so.
I could sit here and say “Hey, I love/hate this record,” and you could say “but why?” and I could reply “because it’s great/shit,” you know, that great internet dichotomy where no shade of grey may be permitted.
I don’t think that level of subjective assessment really means anything to anyone, and nor should it. Or maybe it does, and that’s the only level anyone is prepared to engage with, in which case I am drawing a line in the sand. I will not accept that. I would like to think that’s not what reviews are for. I’m essentially a determinist, so to me there is a specific and definable causation to every occurrence.
Perhaps what this whole process pirouettes clumsily in the direction of is simply an explanation for the cultural causation of an opinion I hold. I don’t claim to have any special insight into the way brains work, especially not my own broken one, so on some level I cannot claim any true objectivity in this, and still have to fudge the lines a little. But nevertheless the intent is pure: It’s not do I like this; It’s why do I, and by extension why should anyone else like/dislike this?
Trouble Will Find Me makes a bold opening gambit by placing what I feel is one of the album’s weakest tracks right up front. On every previous National record, I have latched onto the first block of 2-4 tracks for some reason. On Boxer in particular, Fake Empire through Squalor Victoria represents one of the band’s most noteworthy clusters of music. Here, I Should Live in Salt has a few tricks up its sleeve, notably little jump in the time signature that pushes things off-kilter, but musically and lyrically, it’s repetitive in a way that I feel would be better suited much later in the album’s running order.
Following on from that though, things swing into action with Demons and Don’t Swallow the Cap which represent two fantastic examples of The National’s growing maturity. Matt Berninger’s words have always been self-absorbed, but where earlier albums like Alligator had their fair share of vanity and celebration, this album is a sustained exercise in world-weary self-examination.
Yes, it’s still a kind of New Yorky woe-is-me staring out a window in a silk dressing gown vibe, but I think there’s a lot of appeal in their execution of it. A modern man passing his prime and facing up to the underwhelming sum of his life’s ventures. This is nothing new for The National of course, but here it is sustained in such a way that it’s overpowering, more so even than High Violet. This record is downbeat without being overly morose. It’s more of a self-deprecating grumble than a lament.
There is also a somewhat playful sense of referential humour, references to classic bands crop up alongside old lyrical tropes and ideas subtly resurfacing. These moments provide nostalgic hindsight to the brashness of youth, a kind of light black humour about the never-ending parade of hang-ups and neuroses. Where once Berninger sang of being a “birthday candle in a circle of black girls,” on Alligator’s All the Wine, now he concedes that he is “a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park.”
Musically the band is still using High Violet’s broad palette to fill out their slickly sombre arrangements. The whole exercise roots itself in melancholy, and sometimes that’s laid on a little thick. But it wouldn’t be a National record without a couple of strident wall-of-sound choruses with those relentless snares and string and brass band pomp. Sea of Love is the most prominent example here of that, along with Graceless.
The tail-end of the record is particularly excellent, with three markedly different tracks back to back. The overall sense at this end of the album is that the band is perhaps aware of its tropes and by poking a little at them they can pare things back to something honest and personal.
Piano-ballad Pink Rabbits is Berninger’s confessional of sorts, where he admits that his self-pitying persona may something of an artifice, “I was a television version of a person with a broken heart,” while also acknowledging the truth behind this construction. Hard to Find is a soft and sombre closure in the band’s tradition, but here it’s taken to a startlingly intimate extreme. Following the previous track, this almost seems to be the band trying to escape the yoke of their prettied middle class sadness and get down to something raw.
Yet curiously we find that, somewhere under the dramatic and swollen melancholy of the rest of the album, the National at their most raw actually show a muted and slightly disaffected sense of “oh well, I guess that’s that then…” And for those of us who have experienced it and live with it day-to-day, what could be a truer image of modern life in the western world than that?
Aaron and Bryce Dessner orchestrate their widescreen arrangements with the usual melancholy, while Devendorf’s drums anchor the affair, as ever, with a sense of stuttering confusion. I’m not sure how to describe it exactly, but there’s almost too much drumming, which turns out to be exactly the right amount of drumming. Where other bands would have a hi-hat counting the beat, when The National hit their stride it is toms that seem to fill that role. It’s one of the things made Bloodbuzz Ohio stand out, and it continues to thrill.
Each successive National album has expanded the band’s sound into the orchestral splendour that fills High Violet. Having reached that height, they have found nowhere to go except to pare the sound back a little. They lose none of their confidence however, strident as ever. Sea of Love and Graceless make for a spike of energy in the middle. Perhaps the highlight in this regard is Humiliation, which happily marries self-deprecating, knowing wordplay with that constant driving pulse.
But really, Hard to Find is so achingly perfect, it would be hard for me to claim anything else as my pick of the record.
Trouble Will Find Me, should I compare thee to the other National albums? If so I would paint it as closest in spirit to Boxer, but with an expected post-High Violet maturity and overall sound.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is I like this album and probably nobody cares about that and I’m sorry, but maybe that’s what reviews are for after all? Thanks for reading.