Album Review: The National – Trouble Will Find Me

NOTE: I don’t normally write disclaimers at the beginning of my reviews, but I’d like to emphasise that the rating I’ve given this album is a personal one.  Don’t expect to instantly find gratification within this record.  Trouble Will Find Me fell into my lap quite unexpectedly, when I happened to be in the right frame of mind for it to resonate as it did.

1 The NationalThe real cruelty of depression is in its casual nature.  A lot of people who suffer from feelings of despair – for no matter how long a period of time – can all too easily deny its presence, dismissing it as a short-term burst of being “down in the dumps”.  Although these spells do not necessarily lead to total hopelessness, when they occur on a regular basis, the effects can be just as debilitating.

Matt Berninger summarises this condition perfectly on the first single from The National’s sixth album.  Demons rolls through a collage of set-pieces as its narrator softly realises that he’s being dragged back down once more.  “I am secretly in love with / everyone that I grew up with,” Berninger drones, dead-eyed, attempting to prevent his “drowning friends” from noticing the cracks in his armour, until he finally begins to tremble in a desperate plea for help: “Can I stay here? / I can sleep on the floor.”  It concludes with a sudden realisation that he is no longer the man he once thought himself to be, in a devastatingly dark moment of black humour and genuine pathos: “When I walk into a room / I do not light it up. / Fuck.”

As an entity, Trouble Will Find Me makes no pretence regarding its bleak tones.  Clocking in at a relatively steep fifty-five minutes over a course of thirteen tracks, it’s an album which takes its time to fully address its gloomy subject matter.  Such lack of compromise can appear intimidating, especially on the first few listens, when the desolate nature of the songs on offer can feel suffocating, rather than cathartic.  But it really is in one’s best interests to persevere, because Trouble Will Find Me is possibly The National’s most emotionally direct album yet.  Such adherence to murky topics will not be to everybody’s taste, but as a treatise on depression and its effects, it cuts straight to the bone.

2 The NationalMusically, things are kept simple, aside from the occasional off-kilter time signature, or a subtle incorporation of orchestration.  All the hallmarks of The National’s music are present: Aaron and Bryce Dessner weave fragile guitar patterns above Scott Devendorf’s unobtrusive bass lines, while on songs such as Demons, Bryan Devendorf’s thumping drums pummel the bruises ever deeper.  For the most part, the group are wound tight, only sporadically unscrewing the emotional valves before falling back into sombre introspection.

This buttoned-down approach comes full circle in the album’s lyrics.  Although some will dispute the potency of Berninger’s broader observations, for the most part, he compresses universal feelings in moments of intense personal confession.  On I Need My Girl, he recalls an understated moment of breakdown suffered by a loved one: “Remember when you lost your shit / and drove your car into the garden? / You got out and said ‘I’m sorry’ / to the vines, and no-one saw it.”  Delivered in Berninger’s broken baritone, the imagery becomes painfully vivid without losing any of its raw, intimate power.

As much as one attempts to battle against misery, it can easily become a comfort blanket: something to writhe around in – even unconsciously – until the true nature of the condition hits home.  With repeated plays, Trouble Will Find Me begins to form a kind of cohesion around this sensitive issue.  At its length, it remains a little skewed in places, but eventually, everything coalesces to produce a fitting sequence of music.  I Should Live In Salt opens the album in a slow fog of acoustic guitars, shakers and a gentle ghazal from Berninger.  But soon, pinpricks of electric guitar push through the haze, solidifying the guilt which bleeds from Berninger’s admissions that “I should live in salt for leaving you behind”.  From that moment of guilty revelation, proceedings begin to spiral downwards, and there’s no turning back.

3 The NationalThe heartache begins to reveal itself in the pangs of the stunning Don’t Swallow The Cap and the headrush of Sea Of Love, but the two songs which rest at the album’s heart provide the greatest expression of inner turmoil.  This Is The Last Time proffers the bleakest moment of all, underpinned by a circling guitar motif before it falls into a funereal coda bedecked with cellos.  A breathtakingly ghostly backing vocal from Sharon Van Etten asserts that “it takes a lot of pain / to pick me up”, as the full weight of the despair becomes clear.  However, this is swiftly followed by the thrumming urgency of Graceless, perhaps the album’s peak.  It weaves a slow-burn euphoria even as its dark heart unravels, building to a beautiful climax which features a miraculous refrain from Berninger.  “All of my thoughts of you: / bullets through rotten fruit” he begins, the music rising all around him as he unleashes a wry suggestion to brighten dead minds with flowers.  It’s a stunning piece of songwriting, and stands up there with the best of The National’s work.

This isn’t to say that the whole thing fits together perfectly.  Although Humiliation and the swelling dread of Fireproof are both powerful in themselves, they can seem a little ill-fitting in their sequencing: adrift in such a turbulent maze.  But as the album winds down and Berninger realises that, in reality, there is no quick fix available, his acceptance provides a transcendental poignancy.  Hard To Find may be something of a predictable choice of closer, but within its parameters, it works beautifully.  It finds The National searching the night sky, catching glimpses of what may be hidden in the past, but even as the twinkling spirals of the Dessner brothers escalate, it never flutters away.  Instead, Berninger accepts his present condition with a sigh that “they can all just kiss off in the air”, before the record closes with a final, gentle fade.

Depression is not something one simply chooses to wallow in.  Quite the opposite: it consumes the individual.  The National recognise the absurdity of such a scenario, while at the same time being powerless against its current.  At first, it may seem overly mopey and too content to bask in its own sadness, but this is an album which lodges in the mind and rests there.  Even if it doesn’t possess the greatness of Boxer or the force of High Violet, Trouble Will Find Me’s treatise on depression gets under the skin in a way which is simultaneously haunting and unspeakably uplifting.

To reiterate a tired point once more, perseverance is needed.  If you’ve ever felt even the shortest sting of despondency, listen up.  The magic will find you.

9/10

“Wonder if you live there still, / kind of think you always will. / If I tried, you’d probably be / hard to find.”

30/05/13

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Posted on May 30, 2013, in The Music World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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