A moment of honesty: I've been disappointed by a lot of the recent efforts by the artists I hold highest: the xx, James Blake, Beach House, Youth Lagoon and the rest. It would be unreasonable to call any of their records bad, or even anything less than solid, but I was underwhelmed by their inability to recapture the magic that brought them to the spotlight.
That is not the case with the National's TROUBLE WILL FIND ME. It could have been, and it looked like it was heading that way because the first two songs they released were blood-slowing trudgers. They man the album's first two slots, but after that, there is no slump for the National. I haven't listened to anything else this much all year. Lines are in my head when I wake, and the melodies dictate the motion of my day. It's as good as anything they've ever done, further cementing their place as a central, inclusive fixture in the indie rock landscape.
In all the National pieces I've read over the last couple of weeks, every music journalist and blogger seems to feel it necessary to address the criticism floating in the air. Meaning, I don't actually see a lot of the actual criticism, maybe they're random Twitterers and Hype Machine squatters, I just see a lot of pre-emptive defenses. By and large, this seems to be a beloved band, but I think we're pulled to justify them because, on paper, this band shouldn't work. In indie rock's culture of cutting edge coolness, where "trendiness" has been replaced by "relevance", a bunch of 40 year-olds in dark menswear making songs of constant sorrow shouldn't be an institution. But then you listen to them.
They've never been innovators nor traditionalists (the way today's wave of rustic folk rock is) but they still fill an important role: defining the broad aesthetic of indie rock. They are the palette cleanser, and a great and timeless one. Their best songs are detailed portraits of heartache and anxiety, built with lyrical dexterity and tension on a grand scale.
I stay down with my demons
Which is why the first 2 songs are a little odd. They're not tense, grand or plugged with hooks. Opener "I Should Live In Salt" trips you up immediately with what feels like a half-step delay in the refrain: "Don't make me read your mind / you s(ssshh)hould know me better than that." It's not the cadence your instinctual sense of melody wants to hear, but if you go with it, it will start to feel right. Not clean or natural, but appropriate. The start-stop is a hesitation, a missed staircase step, in a song about guilt ("I should live in salt for leaving you behind") The following track, "Demons," is also slightly off-putting. Matt Berninger reaches prime baritone by singing with a gutteral drone that shambles through the song. It almost doesn't change pitch or note, as if he's daring critics of his deep monotone voice to chew on this. It's not the first song I'd show to a new listener, yet it's the second track on the album.
Maybe they knew this and sequenced it this way because it leads into one of TROUBLE's finest: "Don't Swallow The Cap." A reference to the death of Tennessee Williams, "Cap" is the National gathering strength and resolve to beat down the specter of loneliness. It's brisk determination that turns into bravery -- exactly what fans of The National need to hear.
I'm not alone.
I'll never be.
Into the bone,
There's a mixture of despair and raw motivation here, and it's one of the National's best tricks. It unravels like a plan of attack. The tempo never changes from it's jogging pace, and the chorus is rolled out in a staggered piecemeal, creating an incredible and gratifying kinetic energy. First it's a mere two lines: "Everything I love is on the table / Everything I love is out to sea" before it's drawn back in like the tide. The next time we come to the refrain, it repeats but then continues a little farther: "I'm not alone," he declares, starting an upswell of defiance of our nature. It runs counter to everything else that populates the song, the images of anxiety, and suddenly we have a rousing man vs. self song. When we come to the chorus for the 3rd and 4th time, the circle is completed: "If you want to see my cry / play 'Let It Be' / or 'Nevermind'" I started to wonder, is that toughness? It plays off a high sensitivity to art, but by namedropping music's greatest works, his standards are as high as can be. It's chest-thumping and braggadocio for the youthful, drunken, romantic set.
If I stay here, trouble will find me.
If I stay here, I'll never leave.
When we discover the album title, we learn that this is the kind of trouble that pins you down. Bands like the National romanticize it and all its pain, bringing to mind questions about why we'll never leave. Trouble is the obstacle that keeps us from moving, but it can also be a pain in which we fall in love. Anyone who listens to sad music has always questioned why we do so, and the National are talented at playing in these borders.
On "Heavenfaced," Berninger goes for the big idea by tackling fear of death. It's a theme that's hard to execute well, but Berninger avoids pitfalls with lines directed right at raw universal emotional nerves, writing lines within the realms of commonality but just outside the boundaries of cliche. "Let's go wait out in the fields with the ones we love" and "We'll arrive in heaven alive" stand out, but it's the suddenly bright bridge that echoes long after the song. In it, Berninger's melody suddenly shifts gears into a higher register, and to hear him work in a plain sing-songy nursery rhyme style is a thrill because it feels rare:
She's a griever,
and I believe her.
It's not a fever,
It's a freezer,
I believe her,
and I'm a griever now.
The greatest strength of the National is their ability to articulate these broad, constant feelings into easily digestible moments and embed them into precise, orchestral and soulful indie rock. TROUBLE WILL FIND ME is one of the best because they strike that vein repeatedly, sometimes in quick succession on a single song. The central piece for me is the penultimate "Pink Rabbits," a song that untangles uncertain, digging feelings into elegant, well-dressed hooks from beginning to end. The music isn't much more than an elliptical piano melody and a head bobbing rhythm section, but they serve as the perfect holding cauldron for these reflections. They're held up in the light, and grow outward in every direction.
I was solid gold,
I was in the fight,
I was coming back from what seemed like a ruin.
I couldn't see you coming so far,
I just turn around
and there you are.
Am I the one you think about when you're sitting in your fainting chair, drinking pink rabbits?
Now I only think about Los Angeles when the sun kicks up.
Also on "Pink Rabbits," much like their press, the National seems concerned with pre-empting criticism. They sing of being "a television version of a person with a broken heart" and "a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park." They're acknowledging and even insisting that the pain here is not harrowing, world-eating stuff — but they show us, by example, that that concern and angst is still worth exploring. As a piece of art, it doesn't need to justify the presence of wreckage, but because it does, we can, too. The song closes one of my favorite lines:
You said it would be painless, a needle in a doll. You said it would be painless, it wasn't that at all.
On first read it might come off as a base level whine. But Berninger, a new father, is using the vocabulary of children and tapping into something primal. We can imagine child crying about a painful immunization shot, the lie we tell to kids who haven't learned any better. It's that image that is pulled to the internal, beautiful, infantile gripe we all have whenever we brush up against sorrow. We act as if it wasn't supposed to be this way, every time.
It's why the National will always be a timeless band. I feel confident in saying that this is a run of albums that will echo through the years. The delicate care, profound-if-you-want-it melancholy and universal resonance that they've tapped into is just too alluring of a mixture not to be noticed by history. They've created something worth imitating and replicating, and in that way they'll always be around, but it will be one of those trees that we'll always trace back to its roots.