At this point in their career, it feels like The National is a band swirling in happy irony. There’s an unwritten rule, for example, that “true” progressive indie acts should not achieve mainstream popularity, and those that do are scrutinized for it (which is the reason why some of them feign disdain for the system that enabled their success, essentially biting the hand that feeds them). Then there’s the irony that a band with a penchant for depression and melancholy, fronted by a forty-something baritone who all but mumbles into the mic, could even find chart success.
And yet, The National is completely defying the odds. Not only did their 2010 release High Violet introduce them to a larger audience, but their latest release Trouble Will Find Me is currently fighting Daft Punk for a number-one chart debut on the Billboard 200.
And with good reason. This isn’t a record pre-powered by hyper-marketing; it’s just some of the best damn music on the market, not merely because of its musical brilliance, but because of its raw, honest emotion.
While Matt Berninger’s understated vocal delivery certainly puts no decibel meter into peak territory, the emotional value is undeniable, his sorrowful self-awareness both relatable and endearing. “It’s become the crux of me / I wish I could rise above / But I stay down with my demons,” he laments on “Demons.” Elsewhere, Berninger expresses the awkwardness of being on “Graceless” (“I’m Graceless / Don’t have a sunny side to face this / I am invisible and weightless / You can’t imagine how I hate this”) and “Slipped” (“I’m having trouble inside my skin / I’m trying to keep my skeletons in”). That said, there’s a touch of humor and lightness floating in the undercurrent; for example, perhaps as a way of keeping things accessible, Berninger cleverly sprinkles popular and classic song references into the lyrics (such as “If you want to see me cry / Play Let It Be or Nevermind”), and sometimes stealing whole lines from them (as in “She wore blue velvet” in “Humiliation”). Sometimes Berninger drones in a monotone, other times he follows a captivating melody; but in pretty much every case, he hits his mark.
From a musical standpoint, Trouble Will Find Me echoes the discomfort and awkwardness expressed in the lyrics, but still manages to create a pleasing aesthetic. While the odd and changing meters on openers “I Should Live In Salt” and “Demons” never allow the listener to settle into a groove, The National follow with haunting ballads like “Fireproof” and “Heavenfaced”, which provide some of the most beautiful moments on the record.
It really is a happy irony. Somehow, The National have managed to craft a set of songs that are musically experimental yet hauntingly beautiful, dripping with honesty and pathos that strikes at the heartstrings of the everyman. In effect, without compromising who they are as a band, they have released the most accessible album of their career thus far. Trouble Will Find Me is a masterwork, and an early contender for one of my favorite albums of the year.