The National occupy a position that is both totally enviable and utterly thankless. Even before a good chunk of Trouble Will Find Me was heard, basically every fan of the Brooklyn quintet had already decided that the album would be one of the year’s best. How could it not be, when the band’s previous track record is as close to flawless as you can come? And as great as it is to evoke that sort of slavish optimism, it also means anything less than excellent gets viewed as something subpar. Basically, if it’s not the best, it’s not The National.
It’s a good thing, then, that Trouble Will Find Me is by and large a beautiful, fantastic, sublime, insert-your-awestruck-adjective-of-choice-here album. Standing ovation to Matt Berninger and company because, good god, this thing is gorgeous.
In so many ways, Trouble is exactly the sort of album you’d expect from The National. You’ve got the swirling haze of guitars, the lyrics that espouse a rejection of love and relationships, and Berninger’s gravelly baritone. You could say that makes this album predictable, but there are flashes of new additions – like a few well-placed utilizations of synths on “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” the dreamy strings on “Fireproof,” and the (dare I say it?) affectionate “I Need My Girl” – to make this album far more than just a simple rehash of their previous melancholy efforts.
One of the band’s trademarks has always been Berninger’s deep baritone; I can’t think of another indie vocalist whose voice so perfectly matches the band’s lyrical content like Berninger’s fits with The National’s “sad rock” stylings. His voice has always been one of the best things about the band, and Trouble Will Find Me is hands down his best work to date in terms of technique. Even as a baritone, his range is pretty impressive; “Demons” shows him at his gruff deepest, while you could almost say that his voice soars on “Sea of Love.”
And if his control and range deserve to be lauded, then Berninger needs an award (or ten) for his lyricism, too. He effortlessly switches between lush imagery (“I couldn’t find quiet/I went out in the rain/I was just soakin’ my head to unrattle my brain” from standout track “Pink Rabbits”) to cutting introspection (“I have only two emotions/Careful fear and dead devotion” from “Don’t Swallow the Cap”) to his trademark remarks on the toxic poison of love (“Your love is such a swamp/You don’t think before you jump/And I said I wouldn’t get sucked in” from “This Is the Last Time”). Through each and every throbbing line, you get put through the emotional ringer right along with him. If empathy is an art, Matt Berninger is the master.
Though Trouble is a fantastic album through and through, there are still a few standout moments that outshine the rest. For me, “Don’t Swallow the Cap” is absolutely one of them. Its upbeat tempo is a welcome break from the rest of the album’s largely mid-paced tracks. Between the krautrock-esque drum rhythms, spare guitar lines, spidery synths, and plenty of lush piano and strings, there’s a ton going on. With so many components, the track could end up a total mess, but instead it all fits together perfectly. An as-yet unidentified female vocalist (Annie Clark – a.k.a St. Vincent – Sharon Van Etten, and Dark Dark Dark’s Nona Marie Invie all provided guest work on the album) echoes Berninger, and her fragile soprano offsets the gravel of his voice perfectly. And with a lyric like “I see a bright, white, beautiful heaven hangin’ over me,” it sums up Trouble’s overall atmosphere: it might seem all lush doom and gloom at first, but flashes of light and hope still cut through the shadows.
If there’s one tiny crack in the rock solid Trouble Will Find Me, it’s its density. (And even then, can you really fault an album for being too complex or ambitious?) This isn’t an album you can just pop on for a rotation or two and fully appreciate it. There are a million different layers to Trouble, and you need time and effort to peel them back. I have a tradition when I get a new album; the first time I listen to it, it’s flat on my back, with the lights off, my eyes closed, and my Sennheisers on, with nothing else to distract me from the music. Never has that method been so beneficial as it was for my first listen of Trouble, because it’s an album you need to immerse yourself in. That density doesn’t make Trouble any less of a fantastic album; if anything, it makes it even more rewarding.
An optimist would say that maybe one day we’ll get an album from The National that’s all sunshine and rainbows and extols just how great our relationships with each other are. (Ha, yeah right.) But if Trouble Will Find Me’s title proves to be prophetic, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing, so long as it means that the band continues to make music as beautiful and captivating as this.