When the National became what we could arguably call “present’s world greatest indie band”, a classification Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati group (tks, P4k) achieved among some folks with their widely acclaimed 2010 album High Violet, they’ve sort of crossed the river of relative “pop/rock starness”. That can be tough, can lead to get your own fans to stop from being your fans, can lead, in a band like the National, to an extreme, pernicious mainstreamization, to be sloughy about your song writing and music composition. Even if some people, like that friend of mine (no pun intended) who claimed that despite being a huge fan of Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers and Alligator, and “all tolerant” about Boxer (that enormous collection of catchy – though kinda sad – songs), thinks High Violet is awful, its drumming is unbearable, et cetera, et cetera, the fact is that a record like that only happens once in a blue moon. High Violet is the sad (and officier) version of Seinfeld, the sitcom, of the 21st century, in the form of a music record. Also, the National’s evolution with time is unbelievably well, I dare say flawlessly planned. They have grown as a band with the years, just the way most of their records do the more and more one listens to them (Alligator or its little brother Cherry Tree EP are, probably, the finest example of it), and their strategy is a good one: each time a new record comes out, a new sound, a new topic is added on top of what we already knew.
On Trouble Will Find Me, it’s probably that baroque, basso continuo-alike sound, listened right when the album starts, with a great, strong, proper ballad, “I Should Live in Salt” – one of the nationalest songs in the record, too.
Some (yeah, in this text we only care about people who like the band – or at least don’t hate all the National’s work) may be disappointed with the absence of the roughness, especially on the lyrics they had us used to, but, at the same time, I believe some of that roughness was rather naïve, being fare to say that Matt Berninger, even though still able to produce little amazing drunken phrases like “I wish everybody knew / what’s so great about you”, has matured a bit, which is, sorry for the cliché, not better or worse, it’s just different.
On “Demons”, first song officially put out, the repetition of a boring and meaningless verse (“I stay down / with my demons”) sort of spoils the mood of the listener, right on the second track. Fortunately, “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, with the well-known drumming of Bryan Devendorf, introducing higher than usual pitched lead vocals, comes not to show up as the album’s best moment, yet as a very good tune, with an excellent guitar work. The National do know how to rock and roll, and it’s songs like this one or, and especially, “Sea of Love” (with that bass – Scott is great – inherited directly from Boxer) and “Graceless” (the best on TWFM, a song which has had the awful luck of being born in the shadow of a similar, and even greater, one: “Bloodbuzz Ohio”) are proof more than enough of it.
Assuming a bit of taste, even the biggest fan (and for credibility sake I have to admit I am one) knows this is the record of expendable songs. “Fireproof” is one of those songs (srsly, Cherry Tree is there, it’s amazing, no point on overdoing it), and, nearer to the end, “Pink Rabbits”, a pretty but way toooooo slushy (too mnstrm! that’s what I was talking about earlier) slow which isn’t able to convince – even with those solid, as usual, words here and there.
Still, the record isn’t far from great. Sorry, it’s only the truth. The level on the best songs already mentioned or ones like “I Need My Girl” (Dessner brothers are the best guitarists on the indie world right know, I assure you) with the sweetest, simplest melody and amazing lyrics; or the not less beautiful, “Gospel” (the outstanding song that closes 2007 Boxer) sound-alike “Heavenfaced” – a wonderful instrumental arrangement, from the guitar to the keyboards, highly elaborated, ever growing, not the best but doubtlessly the loveliest. And, like returning to the beginning, so long ago, of an American americana-rock band some people thought was the successor of Silver Jews on 2001 The National, “This Is the Last Time” is nothing else than a bridge from “American Mary” to 2013. On “Slipped”, an enormous piece of songwriting, Matt apologizes for everything (something he’s so fond of doing) and states that doesn’t need “any help to be breakable”; it’s the band’s lead singer telling the listeners nothing has actually changed. “Humiliation” suffers a bit from the problem of being eclipsed by so many better songs this band has done in the past, but “Hard to Find” is, once again, different, in a good way, it contains the sweetness that is the most valuable acquisition of the National in this process of evolution. All in all, with all the (objective) odds against them, they “failed to fail”. Which is great.
Another friend of mine (again, no pun intended) trusted them with her skin. I, by now, am fairly sure I’d trust them with my life.