Both their harshest critics and most devout fans will agree, one of the most prominent elements of The National’s music, is, and always has been, the sadness. From the alt-country beginnings of their 2001 self-titled debut, on through the promising musical growth of 2003’s Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, right on to the critically-acclaimed, career-blossoming stretch of 2005’s Alligator, 2007’s Boxer, and 2010’s High Violet—The National have never made it sound overly easy, resolved, or at peace. From the arrangements to the lyrics, their songs are heavy, intense, and always emotionally entangled; some are frantically raw, unsettled and beat-up, while others are piercingly fragile, empathetic and painfully understated. Now on their sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, the National are again stewing over longing, uneasiness, self-reproach, and, yes, the accompanying sadness. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it doesn’t have to be. The National know what they do best and they continue their broadening reach with another excellent effort to close out a decade-long streak of impressive, strong and eloquent albums.
Trouble Will Find Me is a fitting title for the sixth album from the Ohio-raised, Brooklyn-based five-piece. It’s not short, symbolic or abstract as the previous three album titles have, in one way or another, fallen under. “Trouble Will Find Me” declares an inescapable tone; not from trouble as in, “getting in trouble” or trouble making, but instead, troubled thoughts and feelings. It’s a rather literal statement for The National to make on an album title, but it’s important because it reiterates the self-doubt and uneasiness that is such a prominent part of the band’s music. Regardless of their ever increasing popularity and commercial success, The National aren’t trying to move beyond or hide away the less glamorous details of their music. Instead, it’s being stamped on the album cover.
Even with the sincere and undying inner turmoil, the increased accessibility can be heard on the new album. Both “Graceless” and “Sea of Love” are fast-paced stompers built around catchy hooks. The tunes are rousing, energetic and feature drummer Bryan Devendorf playing at what seems to be his hardest and fastest pace since Alligator ‘s “Abel.” Aaron and Bryce Dessner initiate and create many of The National’s song arrangements and they have always found a way of making them meaningful, appealing and distinct, no matter what tempo, melodies or chords are incorporated. “Heavenfaced” is a slow-burning, even-paced jam with a soaring, grand finish. Upbeat, dark ditty “Don’t Swallow the Cap” features an almost 80’s pop tempo. It’s fun, and even danceable. Lyrically, frontman Matt Berninger stays solemn, stirring and pensive: “Everything I love is on the table/ Everything I love is out to sea/ I have only two emotions, careful fear and dead devotion.”
Slower, softer tracks “This is the Last Time” and “Humiliation” stay active and fresh with their pace-breaking closing arrangements. “This is the Last Time” channels the heartbreaking yearnings of Sad Songs’ outstanding opener “Cardinal Song.” A haunting, layered finish paired with Berninger’s pleading admissions, “Baby you gave me bad ideas/ Baby you left me sad and high.” “Humiliation” goes the other direction, ending playfully with a carefree repeating line to match: “She wore blue velvet/ Says she can’t help it.”
“Pink Rabbits” and “Hard to Find” close out Trouble Will Find Me with beautifully simple and earnest longing.“Am I the one you think about when you’re sitting in your fainting chair drinking pink rabbits?” Berninger asks in the track named after the uncommon drink. It’s not a break-up ballad, it’s not even directly a sad, heartbreak song. “Pink Rabbits” is a composed recollection; a glimpse, a reminder that somehow always finds a way to cascade into further thoughts and memories. Berninger light-heartedly retrace the pain of the past, “You didn’t see me/ I was falling apart/ I was a television version of a person with a broken heart/ You didn’t see me/ I was falling apart/ I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in a park.” It’s an objective retelling of what was once profound feelings, and it results in an original and beautifully understated song.
Going into Trouble Will Find Me, The National were on somewhat of a transitional career path. Yes, High Violet was applauded with familiar marks of critical acclaim, but the album also pushed the band to an unprecedented level of commercial success and popularity. When any band or artist confronts this career junction, it’s speculated on how the success will affect the future music making. Will the band compromise any of its artistic integrity in order to appeal to a new, broadening fan base? With the release of Trouble Will Find Me, The National prove that they can walk the coveted thin line. Yes, the sixth album does offer more accessibility, but it’s also soaked with uneasy edge and restless anxiety. There are some aspects of their music that this band can’t escape. The National make powerfully sad songs that somehow have a way of making their fans incredibly happy. And with Trouble Will Find Me, The National’s dominantly consistent beat goes on—brooding, compelling, moving and wonderful.