“You don’t mind seeing yourself in a picture as long as you look far away, as long as you look removed,” Matt Berninger sang on Boxer‘s key single, “Mistaken For Strangers.” It’s a line that applies to his bleak but steadily dignified band: over their previous three albums, the National have become masters of atmosphere, able to conjure vast levels of meaning with little more than a well-placed horn. That’s not to discount, obviously, the importance of Matt Berninger’s steely baritone, or his wry, sobering tales of urban isolation. But it’s been difficult in the past to parse his lyrics, to distinguish his personal anxiety from that of his characters. Often, he’s seemed like the detached narrator, a guest at a party distracting from his own problems by dryly commenting on his friends’ instead.
That’s a wall that breaks down on the Brooklyn quintet’s sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, a record that feels tremendously intimate and personal. Berninger’s lyrics, for instance, are remarkably direct: on “Don’t Swallow The Cap,” for instance, he confesses, point-blank, “Everything I love is on the table, everything I love is out to sea.” Later, on the bluesy, rain-drenched “Pink Rabbits,” he murmurs, “You didn’t see me, I was falling apart; I was a television version of a person with a broken heart.” He doesn’t even try fooling himself: the hushed closer “Hard to Find” finds Berninger staring into the bottom of his glass and baring all, at first telling an old lover, “I’m not holding out for you,” before then turning around and confessing, “I’m still watching for the signs.” In spite of all this, though, it’s not so much Berninger’s writing that feels exposed as his singing. Rather than letting his words fall out, masked with his low trademark mutter, Berninger spends most of his time in his higher register. It’s obvious in places that he’s straining, but it’s a strain that lends his vocal an unprecedented emotional weight. In place of an observational tone, it now sounds as though he feels every single word. Even for The National, opener “I Should Live In Salt” is wrenching, not only because Berninger sounds positively wracked on the chorus – “I should live in salt for leaving you behind” – but because then this man of words suddenly finds himself at a loss for what to say, his vocal breaking down into a wordless cry while guitars sizzle like frayed nerves behind him. It’s a moment that borders on the visceral.
As usual, the band doesn’t rely on Berninger to carry all the emotional weight, and Trouble features some of their best musical work: the guitars on the seething “Graceless” rip wide open like a flash of light in a hall of mirrors, while the lonely bird call of a guitar line on “I Need My Girl” is quietly devastating. But little here is as grand or ornate as the elegant Technicolor drama of High Violet. By comparison, in fact, Trouble Will Find Me feels microscopic: with the exception of Berninger’s vocal, no one instrument is treated with greater importance than any other. If anything, there’s even more sound here than on previous albums, but the band has focused it all into a concentrated laser beam, creating a backdrop that sounds both vast and incredibly tight simultaneously, where hooks hover, tantalizingly, like mirages and take multiple listens to fully materialize. The National’s albums have always been about the details, but Trouble is all details, an album that trusts the listener to have patience and rewards them in kind. For the band works miracles with less: the fluttering orchestrations that fade in and out across “Don’t Swallow The Cap” feel downright minimalist, something out of Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians, while haunting, mysterious vocals roll through “This Is The Last Time” like fog. And that’s not all: for the first time on a full-length record, the band plunges into songs with odd signatures, most notably on the opening pairing of “I Should Live In Salt” and “Demons.” On first brush, the songs don’t sound like they work – unlike the smooth transitions of math-rock bands who do this in their sleep, the band’s use of 9/4 and 7/4, respectively, sounds stuttering, forced. That’s an impression that fades with time and familiarity, but also once one realizes how well these unnatural time signatures complement Berninger’s turbulent lyrics of a man trying to change but finding himself unable to do so. “The worried talk to God goes on/I sincerely try to love Him and wish that I could rise above it/but I stay down with my demons,” he sings, the band consistently – and yet, always unexpectedly – ending the phrase a beat earlier than it should. It’s a smart twist for a group who have always reflected the emotion in Berninger’s lyrics, and the next logical step in their evolution.
Is this The National’s best album? It’s hard to say. It’s certainly their most ambitious (ironically, considering how restrained it is), their longest, and their most difficult. Its songs cut deeper and resonante longer than almost anything before, with moments of supreme beauty and breathtaking sadness. But at the end of the day, it’s not really important which album is the best – that’s a debate that fans and critics will be squabbling over for years to come. What is important is that this makes four great albums in a row for The National, and as far as I’m concerned, they’ve lived up to their name. There is no better American band.
Track picks: “I Should Live In Salt,” “Graceless,” “I Need My Girl,” “Pink Rabbits”