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The National
Trouble Will Find Me James Skinner , May 24th, 2013 08:36

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In 2010 The National went for broke with High Violet, and in the face of improbably high expectation, they pulled it off. The album - their fifth - took an exhausting two years to complete ("We fight over everything", explained guitarist Aaron Dessner in an interview with The Guardian), but by furnishing their songs with less streamlined, texturally dense arrangements, it thrust the Brooklyn-based quintet way up festival bills and end-of-year lists without sacrificing any of the weary, bruised romanticism that made them such a special prospect in the first place.

A 22-month world tour followed, which you imagine would have felt like an extended victory lap for the band, who had spent a decade gamely shaking off comparisons with their peers and gradually accumulating enough goodwill to be recognised purely on their own terms.  Not so. "We enjoyed it, but it was never easy," says singer, lyricist and bandleader Matt Berninger of the experience. "We always reminded ourselves that all of this is really fragile - that if we don't deliver in, say, some festival show in Europe somewhere, we could start to slide."  Nevertheless, they were sufficiently emboldened by their success that Trouble Will Find Me came surprisingly quickly and easily. Berninger references their collective insecurities in the album's accompanying press release, allowing that it wasn't until after the High Violet tour that they were finally able to relax - "not in terms of our own expectations, but [because] we didn't have to prove our identity any longer."

The group have long-eschewed reinvention in favour of a steady, satisfying progression that is evident from one release to the next and, with that in mind, their sixth LP succeeds precisely because it is what we have come to expect of The National at this point. Aaron and Bryce Dessner's piano and guitar lines alternately weave delicate shapes around each other or come on with intuitive force, Bryan Devendorf's drumming (likened, brilliantly, by filmmaker D.A.

Pennebaker to "rain falling through the leaves on a tree") is ceaselessly assured and inventive, and Berninger deploys his familiar baritone to stirring effect (though some of his best performances here arrive in a notably higher, brighter register). The record further shades the band's sound by way of the fullest, most confident instrumentation they have yet put to tape, replete with strings, synth, woodwind and harmonies that spiral into haunting outros and unexpected breaks, and while the presence of some Sufjan Stevens-provided drum machines doesn't exactly constitute a leap into unchartered waters, the Krautrock shimmer of 'Humiliation' and urgent pulse of 'Sea Of Love' showcase a group of musicians whose sense of adventure is very much alive. 

Michael Stipe once suggested to the band that they needed to write a "pop song," and 'I Should Live In Salt' is feasibly the sound of his advice being taken to heart: all twinkling, ascending guitars set against a positively cavernous Devendorf beat. It is anchored, though, by a set of lyrics written about Berninger's younger brother Tom, and the sibling relationship presumably explored at length in Mistaken For Strangers, a documentary the latter made in an ill-fated stint accompanying the band on tour. "I should leave it alone, but you're not right," Berninger sighs, detailing the exasperation, affection and increasing concern he feels for his younger brother (lines that many, many siblings will be able relate to), before admonishing himself in the chorus: "I should live in salt for leaving you behind." 

It makes for a big, emotional start to the record, albeit one immediately offset by the churning pitter-patter of 'Demons' and 'Don't Swallow The Cap'. Here and elsewhere, though, the gloom that underpins much of Berninger's output is tempered with moments of levity. "We'll all arrive in heaven alive," he asserts amid a stream of hazy non sequiturs in 'Heavenfaced', while he has rarely come on as directly as he does on 'Fireproof' or the gorgeous 'Slipped'. 

Perhaps not even the most ardent fan would have envisioned a song named 'I Need My Girl', but they will certainly recognise the sincerity which Berninger invests in the line here. Imagery taking in swamps, floods and ever-rising water levels continues to manifest itself in these songs, which are also strewn with references to friends, accomplices and iconic acts (a character named Jenny hovers in the background, echoing the presence of a Karen on 2005's Alligator; Morrissey, Nirvana, Elliott Smith and The Beatles are all alluded to).

"Am I the one you think about when you're sitting in your fainting chair, drinking pink rabbits?" Berninger asks in 'Pink Rabbits', evoking all manner of Fitzgeraldian heartache and excess. It is a gauzy, beautiful high point of an album not lacking for them; an intimate reflection on Los Angeles strung together by malaise and memorable lines. "You didn't see me, I was falling apart / I was a television version of a person with a broken heart," he later notes. Yet, for all its weariness and sorrow, the song glimmers with a sense of affection and triumph; of a battle or love or ideology that was - and is - worth fighting for.

In an interview with Canada's Q TV a few years ago Berninger conceded a tendency to dwell on dark themes (song titles like 'Graceless', 'Demons' and 'Humiliation' more or less speak for themselves), but also expressed the belief that his band's songs contain a "pretty healthy balance between tenderness, optimism, humour and melodrama." The National have arguably never struck that balance quite as sweetly or persuasively as they do on Trouble Will Find Me, a layered, resoundingly human work that extends their winning streak without so much as breaking a sweat. 

Eidur Rasmussen
May 24, 2013 12:52pm

Tremendous album.

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G
May 24, 2013 2:46pm

Seconded. Spot on review too.

Really great album and it's much more immediate than the holy trinity of Alligator, Boxer and High Violet. Arguably the best thing they've done. Can't stop listening to it. My only quibble would be that they don't have a song on it to equally the breezy brilliance of 'Lemonworld'. 'Pink Rabbits' comes close though.

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G
May 24, 2013 2:47pm

*equal*

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Kevin
May 24, 2013 3:07pm

One could argue this band is the best in the business and this album reinforces that point. Where is stands rignt now, this is the album of the year.

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If My Auntie Had Baws
May 24, 2013 5:39pm

Horrible band; you Limeys shame yourself patronizing this middlebrow crap. Brinsle Scwartz weren't even that great but they're fucking godhead compared to these simps. "Best in the business" of what?!?! I hope ya'll never heard the Mekons (from "Fear & Whiskey" through "Curse of the Mekons," with a few flashes afterwards but not including Jon Langford's pedestrian solo work) back when they were good FFS, your heads would all mutually explode.

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Listen Bawbag--
May 24, 2013 5:42pm

Watch your language, would you? There's burds that read this, even if I agree with the sentiment. Even third tier Drive By Truckers crushes these cornballs, let alone oh, the greatest 150 George Jones performances.

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Jeff
May 24, 2013 6:29pm

@James

On The Beatles reference: which one are you referring to?

On "Don't Swallow The Cap," I'm pretty sure that Matt is referring to The Replacements' Let It Be. Just because that fits much better, and it has a link (aesthetically and inspirationally) to the album it's coupled with, Nevermind.

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M. Kelleher
May 24, 2013 7:20pm

Nice article that sums up perfectly what I believe is the band's best. Jeff is, however, right - the "Let It Be" is a reference to the excellent album by The Replacements; Matt has confirmed this elsewhere.

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J. Temperance
May 24, 2013 8:30pm

In reply to If My Auntie Had Baws:

Where exactly are you coming from with the Mekons comparison? I love The National but I also frequently listen to "Fear & Whiskey" and my head remains mostly intact.
And just because something isn't wildly experimental or has an appeal that stretches beyond a niche audience of elitists doesn't always make it middlebrow.

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Tindrum1
May 25, 2013 2:20am

The National..or as I like to call it
'Mark Lanagan and the Bad Seeds'

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May 25, 2013 11:50pm

In reply to J. Temperance:

There's nothing more banal or middlebrow than an American 'alt'-rocker referencing the fucking Replacements... Love those Kiss covers though right?

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James
May 26, 2013 10:07am

In reply to M. Kelleher:

Thank you! Glad you liked it. And you and Jeff are right about The Replacements - I read the band's Reddit Q&A late one night and was sure I saw them state the opposite!

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Kevin
May 26, 2013 2:49pm

In reply to J. Temperance:

He just wants everyone on this message board to understand his deft knowledge of rock. Hell, what do we know? I suppose I should come here and tell everyone that Big Star is the greatest ever and if one were ever listen to Radio City, they would experience the greatest bowel movement ever. Oh, and his Aunt has balls.

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Tindrum1
May 27, 2013 8:57am

In reply to Kevin:

Wait for the joke...are you sitting comfortably?
Alright. Here we go.

" Kevin, is that your 'Impression Of J. Temperance' ?

*Makes bad Fall joke & leaves*

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Andrew
May 28, 2013 10:17am

In reply to Tindrum1:

@Tindrum1 The National sound nothing like The Bad Seeds beyond their common use of stringed and percussion instruments and the only similarity between Lanegan and Berninger is their pitch. You may as well say they both sound like Leonard Cohen fronting Fleetwood Mac.

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J. Temperance
May 28, 2013 1:18pm

In reply to Andrew:

New Order covering Tindersticks pops into my head occasionally when I listen to them. But in a good way.

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SY
Jun 6, 2013 11:47am

In reply to J. Temperance:

Surely it should be Tindersticks covering New Order?

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bonzka
Jun 15, 2013 9:20pm

I've been a tentative part-time fan of national but this album is a wonderful long-term test piece to enjoy.

I only comment because I thought this was a brilliant review. Well written, and it shared sentiments I had considered but couldn't articulate.. I'll explore the rest of the site now!

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Raymond Duck
Jul 16, 2013 4:56pm

"High Violet" was the crystallisation of this band's potential. This new album is assured, polished and effective, but it has the whiff of staleness about it. Any of these songs could have been on "High Violet", and a couple of them could have even been on "Boxer". During a year that's seen some great reinventions/evolutions - Kanye, Lanegan, Cave, These New Puritans - this album is treading water. A for Execution, D for Ambition.

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