Whether you think The National are boring self-pitiers or not, you can’t deny how consistent they’ve been. With a career that now spans fourteen years and six albums, their reputation precedes them, and heading towards the release of Trouble Will Find Me fans have naturally formed high expectations. Let me first be clear in saying that there are no real surprises on this record – no reinvention, no clean slate, no turning of the tables. Characteristically, it’s a National record through and through, and on the surface some might find it hard to properly distinguish it from previous efforts. The morose melancholy is still here as usual, peppered with Matt Berninger’s distinctive tones and the same off-kilter lyricism that we saw on High Violet three years ago – but where High Violet saw The National finally gain some mainstream attention,Trouble Will Find Me has nothing to prove, and as such the focus has been allowed to shift.
This time around, it seems that there has been more thought given to the tracks’ musical qualities. Firstly, the band has injected the album with odd time signatures, purposefully rather than as bragging rights. The 9/8 of opener ‘I Should Live In Salt’ makes for an interesting listen – I’d compare the extra beat to the strange sensation of uncertainty when your foot plummets through the space you thought was an extra step at the top of the staircase. In a Q&A on Reddit, guitarist Aaron Dessner said that the odd meters mean “we have to pay more attention to what we’re doing”, and whilst they haven’t completely forgone the anthemic appeal of songs such as ‘Mr. November’ or more recently ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, they’re clearly more intent on delivering interesting instrumentation and challenging themselves as musicians.
What particularly struck me were the several nods to influences, whether by name or musically. From “Don’t Swallow The Cap”, the line “If you want to see me cry / Play ‘Let It Be’ / Or ‘Nevermind” refers to albums from The Replacements and Nirvana, whilst the guitar picking on “I Need My Girl” is reminiscent of the stylings of a friend of Berninger and co, Sufjan Stevens. These extra feathers in their cap reinforce the idea that the band reached terminal velocity with High Violet and now want to decelerate in as engaging a way as possible. The themes here are certainly more varied – the typical musings of love lost, opportunities squandered and ‘the city’ have remained, but they are accompanied by explorations of religion (“God loves everybody, don’t remind me,”) and personal submission (“Do my crying underwater / I can’t get down any farther / All my drowning friends can see.”)
Technicalities of time signatures and influences aside, it’s important to note that the tracks themselves are as alluring as ever, with some tracks sharing breathing space with utmost National treasures. Sitting in the middle of the album, ‘This Is The Last Time’ sways above an encapsulating bassline, and the rhythm of the vocals just sounds so good with each line being shifted a beat over: “Oh, but your love is such a / Swamp, you don’t think before you / Jump”. Matt is trying to expand on what he can do with his typically deep mumble, and Trouble Will Find Me sees his vocal melodies at their most diverse. At times, he’s really singing rather than drawling, and many of the album’s bridges have double tracked vocals, adding a misty, endearing touch to the proceedings.
Ultimately, Trouble Will Find Me is unlikely to win many more fans for The National – if you didn’t like them before, you probably won’t like them now – but I’m sure the Brooklyn boys will have no problem with that. After all, I would surmise that they made this album for themselves, to stretch their capabilities and to keep them from morphing into bloated self-indulgent stadium-rockers. Luckily, they understand that the band won’t last forever. I’m quite content to stroll into the sunset with them.