The National 'Trouble Will Find Me'

Oh, I Want Trouble Alright

The National 'Trouble Will Find Me'
The National 'Trouble Will Find Me'. 4AD

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In advance of the release of Trouble Will Find Me, the sixth LP for The National, the band have been talking it up with giddy, joyous terms; singer Matt Berninger and guitarist Aaron Dessner calling it everything from 'freewheeling' to 'fun.'

Yet this is 'fun' as seen through the prism of The National: through their stately arrangements, through their sombre tone, through Berninger's mumbly baritone, and, mostly, through Berninger's lyrics, which have long seemed to delight in awkwardness, anxiety, and existential concern.

Like so many inspired lyricists, Berninger scatters in proper names; from people (Davy, Joe, and, with echoes of Destroyer, both Jenny and Jennifer), to places (Venice, Dallas, Harvard), to the records on the stereo (Bona Drag, Let It Be, Nevermind). "Don't tell anyone I'm here/I got Tylenol and beer," he dryly intones, in that sweet baritone, mid-"This Is the Last Time"; sounding, as he often does, funny and sauced and sad and in need of help all at once.

In Heaven, Everything Is Fine

That sense of conflict is played out in the most strongly-recurring images on Trouble Will Find Me. There's a wash of images of the ocean, of being underwater, of drowning, feeling swamped. "I wish I could rise above it, but I stay down with my demons," Berninger intones, on single "Demons"; on "I Should Live in Salt," he "learn[s] to appreciate the void."

And, juxtaposed with this, heaven is forever there, up above, looming, calling him.
On "Humiliation," amidst Berninger's regular social angst, water and death collide over shuffling drums and gentle piano: "I retired to the briars by the pool it gets so loud/If I die this instant/taken from a distance/they will probably list it down among other things around town."

Berninger's relationship to the afterlife, and to religion itself, is often tenuous.

He sings things like "I have faith but I don't believe it" (on "Don't Swallow the Cap"), "God loves everybody, don't remind me" (on "Graceless"), and "can't face heaven all heaven-faced" ("Heavenfaced"). This just means that "heaven," each time it appears, is elusive and inscrutable; a daydream or hallucination or symbol that Berninger turns over, in his mind, and in his lyrics. When he sings "Let's go wait out in the fields with the ones we love," on "Heavenfaced," you probably get closer to what he's scratching at: life being an accumulation of personal connections, of emotions, that persist after you pass; be it heavenward, down below, or into the void.

Life, Death, etc.

The title of Trouble Will Find Me is, itself, filled with contrast, conflict, dual (and duelling) meanings. It's both a smirking, recalcitrant wink, and a genuine lament. And that plays out not only through Berninger's lyrics, but in their relationship to the music. Which is, really, where the freewheeling and fun come in. Which is not to say that there's anything here that takes The National out of their melancholy comfort-zone; turns them towards rockin'-out in any real way.

But after 2010's High Violet was an album thick with atmosphere, and found Berninger clawing through gauzy layers of guitar in a pseudo-symbolic fashion, here the music is often light and airy, filled with a simplicity that's rarely interested the Dessner brothers before.

"Don't Swallow the Cap" is a driving, Springsteenian song (where Berninger sees "a bright white beautiful heaven hanging over me") with a one chord piano-motif chiming out. Sure, underneath Bryan Devendorf plays his percussion around the beat, and discordant guitar shards ricochet back-and-forth from speaker to speaker, but at its heart the song is simple and sincere; with Sharon Van Etten's warm vocal harmonies lighting it up with flowering life.

"Now I know what dying means," Berninger sings, on "Graceless," but as much as he's singing about death —about the journey to heaven— all these ruminations on mortality have the feeling of being about living. Trouble Will Find Me is an album where even 'fun' is tinged with sadness, where wisdom is hard-won, and where the great joys and great anxieties of life come because death is always there at the end of it.

It's, in short, a National album; and an impressive one at that.

Label: 4AD
Release Date: May 21, 2013

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