“I know I was a lot of things, but I am good and I am grounded / Davy says that I look taller”
With a pre-release album streaming on the iTunes Store front page and an all-star cast of friends to cameo on their latest album, who could have predicted even five years ago that The National would become giants? It seems to me that with each album, The National steadily build on their previous foundations to ever headier heights. From the intimate and waist-deep scale of The National to the immense and towering sprawl of High Violet, they have, sonically, grown exponentially.
From the opening swell of I Should Live In Salt, it is clear that Trouble Will Find Me has a strong musical connection to High Violet. However, some songs have echoes of Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, such as the menacing broodiness of ‘Sea of Love’ which features rallying drum rolls from Matt Devendorf and spiky guitars that occasionally puncture into the foreground (and, incidentally, if you listen closely you can hear Aaron Dessner wailing on a harmonica). Meanwhile, the guitar driven ‘Fireproof’ and the slow-dancing ‘Heavenfaced’ both sound like they could be outtakes from Boxer. Although the tone and tempo in general hardly gets above a sombre heartbeat, there is still space for a sense of intrepid wonder, like the speeding ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’ or the glimmering sense of hope on ‘Humiliation’. And of course, it wouldn’t be an album by The National without a bittersweet send off and ‘Hard to Find’ does not disappoint, giving us one final “kiss off into the air” before the album’s close. However, it is really the unshiftable immensity of this collection which really hits home. The songs themselves are like monumental totems which Berninger wanders through, singing of the heavier aspects of modern domesticated life.
Although Berninger’s lyrics may be pensive and doubtful, as is his way, the music is confident and reflects a seamless chemistry between band members. The guitars are less pronounced than on previous albums, working more as a texture in the overall collage. Indeed, the Dessner brothers lean more on synths and piano these days to offer colour, as on ‘Graceless’ and the pre-release single ‘Demons’. Meanwhile, Scott Devendorf’s bass lopes alongside his brother’s idiosyncratic drum fills, grounding and contributing to the compositions throughout. Although these aspects have been present all along, it is here that the band seems most unified. The songs are understated in their deep resonance and they ebb and flow in a way that is reminiscent of David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy.
Trouble Will Find Me seems like a midlife crisis of a record (the “taking stock of what you have” kind, not the “buy an embarrassing leather jacket and a fast car” kind). This feeling is especially present on ‘I Need My Girl’, which navigates family tensions and personal dissatisfaction (“I know I was a lot of things, but I am good and I am grand”). After the growing pains of the first few albums and the settled confidence of Boxer and High Violet, this album is more moody and brooding. The problem, unfortunately, is that the tone just doesn’t vary much. While The National can arguably be said to only plough one particular field (scenes of middle-American strife and personal malaise), the range and depth they have managed to get out of that field in the past is remarkable and exhilarating. Even on their most pessimistic albums they could still pull out some anthems, and while Trouble Will Find Me never bores, it never really gets going either.
So, will Trouble Will Find Me turn off some old listeners? Possibly, but most fans of The National are aware that they are not the most forthcoming band. Will it garner The National some new listeners? I don’t think so. However, as with all their albums, Trouble Will Find Me will be a grower that unexpectedly slips under your skin one day and will keep you entranced for months, or even years. And for all these grumblings The National remain an endearing group who, even at their most dizzyingly colossal, still seem like they’re talking directly to you.
Trouble Will Find Me is available now through 4AD.