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Confidence. Comfort in one’s own skin. It’s the difference between trying too hard and coming off as a fraud or following your own heart and rising to the top. Many a band waffles after success, making, instead, what they think the audience wants to hear. But with Trouble Will Find Me, The National’s sixth full-length studio album outlines the confidence to expand and experiment with the formula, paired with the skills to do it justice.
That confidence is present from the opening salvo, where The National sets the tone and pace for the record. This consistency is a particular skill of theirs; after all, where would Alligator begin outside of “Secret Meeting,” The Boxer without “Fake Empire,” or High Violet sans “Terrible Love”? At this point, it’s an established tenet for any National album to make a proper introduction before any listener is free to roam in its ensuing universe.
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“I Should Live In Salt,” then, establishes Trouble as a comparatively upbeat place. Over balmy chords and a touch of campfire tambourine, Matt Berninger pines for redemption as he intones, “I should live in salt for leaving you behind.” Lyrically, it’s another somber affair from the bearded singer, but what’s key to note is the mood that’s conveyed through its rousing instrumentation. The angelic harmonies and those sky-searching guitar lines keep the head up, rather than staring down towards the cracked earth in disappointment. With these sensibilities in play, The National embark on a meditative journey that doesn’t necessarily eschew a sunny day.
But that’s not to say that the album is without its darker moments — we’re still talking about the National, after all. Shortly after, “Demons” haunts behind its uptempo synth backbeat, to which Berninger bemoans his own pessimism: “I wish that I could rise above it / But I stay down with my demons.” The usual lyrical themes of disappointing relationships, lowered expectations, and heartbreak are prevalent here, epitomized in the smooth “Humiliation,” whose protagonist engages in some self-indulgent, high-society despair.
With ease, the band plays to its strengths with these dramatic narratives, regardless of the subject matter. After the runaway success of High Violet, The National let the cement dry on their own particular sound; in other words, they don’t need to establish themselves as anything anymore. Berninger explains this in the album’s press release: “After touring High Violet, I think we felt like we’d finally gotten there. Now we could relax — not in terms of our own expectations but we didn’t have to prove our identity any longer.” With this freedom, Trouble avoids exploring one specific mood to cover a wider range of sounds and themes.
Such confidence breathes on “I Need My Girl.” It’s a poignantly straightforward lament for the support of a partner; the narrator repeats the title as a mantra against existentially frightening moments. “Heavenfaced” is similarly optimistic: “Things are tougher than we are / I could walk out, but I won’t.” This more balanced perspective — a bridge between soul-crushing existential dread and cautious happiness — is one major reason why Trouble is more approachable than some of its predecessors. “Don’t Swallow The Cap”, arguably their poppiest anthem to date, teases this same idea: “I have only two emotions / Careful fear and dead devotion.”
Like previous entries in their catalogue, Trouble is littered with an endless plethora of quotable lyrical phrases that hide between the choruses. “I am secretly in love with / Everyone that I grew up with,” Berninger admits on “Demons,” and goes on to add, “When I walk into a room / I do not light it up.” “Don’t Swallow The Cap” plays tribute to some of the National’s influences: “If you want to see me cry / Play Let It Be or Nevermind” (the former variously attributed as both a Beatles and a Mats reference). The title lyric (taken from “Sea of Love”—“If I stay here / Trouble will find me”) can be read several ways; drummer Bryan Devendorf explained it as, “sort of fatalistic in a way, and maybe a bit paranoid… but… there’s some triumph and confidence [on the record] that belies what one’s initial reaction might be.”
And confident in their own skins, The National invited some more friends to help out on Trouble, including Sufjan Stevens, who contributed drum machines to several tracks, and guest vocals from Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent), Sharon Von Etten, and Dark Dark Dark’s Nona Marie Invie. The delicate vocal additions add a natural foil to Berninger’s warm, bottomless baritone, particularly on “Don’t Swallow The Cap.” Other instruments, including clarinets, classical strings, and synthesizers, fill in the background with a degree of subtlety so profound that it takes repeat listens to ferret out all the textures present.
The end result is a new kind of National album — still dark and neurotic, obsessed with modern-day paranoia, but also bursting with an unlikely optimism and a very 2013 zest for life. It’s approachable without compromise and confident enough to be itself, not another Alligator or High Violet, but unmistakably from the outset Trouble Will Find Me. Come what may, The National sound ready to face it.
Essential Tracks: “Don’t Swallow The Cap”, “I Should Live In Salt”, and “Sea of Love”
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