Sunday, June 2, 2013

Album Review: The National – Trouble Will Find Me (2013)

A couple of fellow blogger friends of mine have come down very hard on The National’s latest album, Trouble Will Find Me. One described it as “dreary” and asked the question, why bother? Another called it a “disgrace” and a “turgid exercise in self-flagellation” ...

Harsh words indeed.

The New York based band’s sixth studio effort has certainly divided opinion so far, and I note the popular Pitchfork site, on the other hand, was somewhat gushing in its praise for the album, rating it a positively sizzling 8.4/10 and including it in its ‘best new music’ category.

So there are perhaps a couple of things worth considering in all of this.

The first is that The National haven’t done too much differently on Trouble Will Find Me. What worked on Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet (the band’s three most popular sets to date) tends to work just as well on the new album.
Yet there may have been an expectation for The National to come up with something novel, something exciting and fresh to stave off the sort of critical backlash often reserved for mid-career bands. Onetime ‘next big thing’ type bands keeping faith with a formula that served so well during formative years. Is there a school of thought dictating that The National must now somehow move on?

The second thing is that this band’s albums have always been slow creepers – the sort of thing best appreciated after giving it time to really sink in. Certainly, 2010’s High Violet was quite slow in revealing itself, and it took a number of listens before it dawned on me what a beautifully constructed piece of work it was. High Violet, for me, grew to become one of its year’s best albums. The counter argument to such a notion, of course, is that a good album really shouldn’t take that much work.

The National: great live rep, fading in the studio?
Trouble Will Find Me, as it turns out, does feel like an exception to that rule. And curiously enough, it grabbed me by the scruff of the neck right from the off. If there is a major point of difference between past work and this album, that is it. This one was instantly accessible. For me, obviously. For others, not quite so much.

There’s parts where Matt Berninger’s silky baritone feels like it’s speaking directly to me. And while this album’s set of lyrics don’t veer anywhere near as dramatically between the severe self-loathing and extreme violence of its predecessor, Trouble Will Find Me has an uneasy melancholy and dark beauty right at its core. Berninger’s words have always had a capacity for surprise, and with the odd dollop of humour thrown in, Trouble Will Find Me is every bit as quietly mischievous as everything that preceded it.
The band is faultless throughout, naturally; these guys are nothing if not thoroughly professional. Arrangements are immaculate, and production ultra clean. Perhaps that’s one of its problems? It almost feels a little too pristine, and if it’s the spirit of raw rock n roll you’re looking for, then you definitely won’t find it here.

And I do actually get what others are on about. A lot of this does feel fairly generic – there’s some truth in those claims. The band, while tight and polished, could be accused of playing it safe, and there is a valid concern that The National might be stagnating, switched to auto-pilot and merely going through the motions.

Beyond all of that however, I really do love this album (at the moment). I’m not sure where it will ultimately rate alongside the rest of The National’s discography, but despite its mixed reception, I’ve a very warm feeling that I’m only going to keep on enjoying Trouble more and more as the year unfolds.

Highlights: ‘I Should Live In Salt’, ‘Demons’, ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’, ‘Sea of Love’, ‘I Need My Girl’, and the superb ‘Graceless’.

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