Day Ninety-Three: Why the New National Album Isn’t Just Another National Album
by Tom Noonan
There’s a particular conversation I’ve had about a dozen times since the new National album came out, and it’s almost not that surprising that I’ve had it so many times. The conversation usually begins with me asking someone if they’ve heard the album and what they think, and the response is usually along the lines of, “Well, it’s a National album, so, I mean, it’s a National album.” The reason that this recurring blueprint interaction isn’t that surprising is because, well, the qualification that this is just “a National album” is pretty much the best way to start talking about the Brooklyn band’s new entry. The major problem with this qualification, however, is that it is not complete.
Trouble Will Find Me, The National’s unsurprisingly terrifically solid new album, is the National album about what exactly it means to be The National. It’s the first time since their breakout Alligator that the indie-rock auteurs have attempted to subvert their formula. Now, to call it a formula here is not to diminish their product up to this point. Instead, it is meant to call attention to the subversions Matt Berninger is pulling off on Trouble Will Find Me.
The National’s previous, and most commercially successful, album, High Violet, was a product born from well-documented band rifts and creative collisions that, in the end, came out sounding like the nuclear-powered muffled chaos they’d always aspired to. It was the album that made The National a brand in indie-rock, successfully striking a balance between the taut, off-beat melodies of Boxer and the achy schizophrenia of Alligator.
With this brand resting on Berninger’s mind, he seems to have approached Trouble with a skewed and refreshing view of his mission as chief songwriter. There are tracks on this album that he would never have even recorded demos of for High Violet. “I Should Live In Salt” is the most jarring of the bunch. Opening with a simple strum and chord progression pattern thats bookended knowingly by what sounds like oddly colorful feedback, its first two measures play like a band trying emulate The National but missing the point. Then the feedback morphs into a smoothed over guitar line and Berninger comes in singing, “Don’t make me read your mind/You should know me better than that.” It’s less a personal lyric than his assuming the title of preeminent indie-rock superstar.
The rest of the album contains this same winking, nearly-meta wit that Berninger has often shown glimpses of before but is on full, engrossing display here. The best, or at least most fun, example comes on, “Demons”, the most self-aware and sad sack-y track on the album. For most of the song, Berninger hangs out comfortably in his brand, the music and his voice forming two parallel lines until he reaches the end of a very National-y slow-burn build-up that has a deceptive, very National-y coda, “When I walk into a room/I do not light it up.” For a split second here, at this line, the whole song feels frustratingly familiar, as if the brand has stuck, has become a creative crutch. But then Berninger, carving out some fresh space in the song’s impeccably constructed landscape, ends the last verse with his own one-word commentary on the familiarity of this realization, “Fuck”, he mutters. It’s a direct shot at the idea of expectations, both those that Berninger is clearly worried about playing into and those that limit his own creative growth, and it does well to pull you up from the depths to which National albums usually submerge. From this lyric on, Trouble Will Find Me becomes the the National album where Matt Berninger shows us how the trick is done, taking us through every step, then proves why he is the only one who can do it.