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May 27, 2013 | by  | in Arts Music |
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Trouble Will Find Me – The National

“I am secretly in love with everyone I grew up with.”

Forgive me for beginning on a self-referential, meta note (the kind of post-modernism flourish which The National would no doubt despise incidentally; but more on that later), but in choosing a quote to headline the review, I spent a while blankly deliberating between choice one-liners from the album. The National’s lyrics provide tremendous fodder for important-sounding, adroit opening gambits—”Hey Jo, sorry I hurt you but / they say love is a virtue don’t they”; “I keep feeling smaller and smaller”; “You didn’t see me I was falling apart / I was a television version of a person with a broken heart”. Ultimately, though, the one you see emblazoned above you encapsulates the tone of the album perfectly.

Trouble Will Find Me is in many ways a direct successor to the Alligator/Boxer/High Violet trifecta, which is to say there are enough familiar, almost archetypal, elements to qualify this particular record as National is, National does. This has, predictably, seen TWFM accused of being a symptom of a ‘one-trick pony’ band (never mind that this steed could win the Melbourne Cup). As a certain misogynistic, incoherent-at-worst, clumsy-at-best, undisputed champion of meretricious and arbitrary name-dropping New Zealand reviewer put it: “Honestly, what’s the point?”

To address this complaint, I have to explain that there are some quintessentially ‘The National’ elements at play here. Their unparalleled grip on recognising the exhilarating in the melancholic returns, and is exemplified most on ‘Hard to Find’, which boasts a climax that suits moping about in a bedroom, but which wouldn’t be out of place being featured as the protagonist of some romantic movie runs towards their love interest—in the vein of the propulsive ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, or ‘Abel’.

Then there are the blunt lyrics that function as a confessional (to give you an idea, “Remember when you lost your shit” begins one incriminating passage). In fact, if you told me that the songs from Trouble Will Find Me were recorded in the same sessions that yielded Alligator, Boxer and High Violet, I would be impressed but not flabbergasted.

But, and this is important, Trouble Will Find Me is nuanced where the others aren’t. Which isn’t to say that it’s ‘complex’—there’s a crucial distinction. To wit:

– Nuance is the way lead singer Berninger’s voice cracks as he intones “it’s a sign that someone loves me” on ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’.

– Nuance is the way ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’ devolves into a bare-boned industrial buzz.

– Nuance is the subtle, ‘An Ending’-esque synth undercurrent that runs through ‘I Need My Girl’, that doesn’t make itself prominent until the second listen.

– Nuance is the ephemeral upwards-strummed chord that chimes at 2:54 of ‘Hard to Find’.

And so on. Moreover, Berninger’s vocals are frail, in lieu of his usual baritone vigour. It’s not that he can’t do it—indeed, the ferocity with which he distils a rough patch in a relationship: “Don’t make me read your mind / you should know me better than that / it takes me too much time” is palpable—but a conscious decision was made somewhere to add an urgent hush to his voice. Frankly, he sounds burnt-out and lost, and this lends the album an immediacy, a despondence, that previous ones lack.

So where does it fit in with The National’s back catalogue? There is a tendency in discourse to frame The National’s albums as contiguous; so, each album is contextualised according to its relationship with the others. Though I don’t necessarily subscribe to this mode of critique, I do acknowledge that it makes sense to categorise Alligator, Boxer and High Violet in a neat little inter-referential, interrelated timeline. Shit, it might even be necessary; it serves to demystify three perplexing albums.

What’s strange about Trouble Will Find Me is that it doesn’t feel like a natural step in some kind of linear progression. Though the band themselves tout this as their most “self-assured” record (and in terms of creative control it might well be), it sounds the complete opposite. They haven’t been this lost and confused, as down-and-out and frustrated with mundanities and urban ennui and loneliness and fear of impending failure hanging perpetually like a sword of Damocles since Alligator. Bleakly, they’re back to square one. It’s no mistake that the refrain of the closing track, “you can all just kiss off into the air”, can easily be misheard as “you can all just kiss off the new year”. Trouble Will Find Me feels like a distinct chapter in The National’s life, and ‘Hard to Find’ represents its finale poignantly.

What I love about The National, and always will, is their honesty. Trouble Will Find Me speaks so many truths and captures so much of life that it manages to resonate within me like little else. They do it in such a down-to-earth, accessible style (the odd nod to shoegaze or electronica aside) while indie, as a genre, seems preoccupied with sounding as ‘complex’ and ‘experimental’ as possible. That they pull it off so adeptly is nothing short of astounding. Trouble Will Find Me is a beautifully rendered depiction of an “uninnocent, inelegant fall into… the lives of adults”. And the angels of that song might not want to watch, sure—but it’d shit-sure be worth their while to listen.

4.5/5

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