"We were so under the brine
We were so vacant and kind"
The Basics, (tl;dr edition)
Trouble Will Find Me is the 6th Full-Length LP from Brooklyn's modern rock heroes, The National. The album's name is taken from a lyric from the 5th track, "Sea of Love."
At a cursory glance, 2013 is already shaping up to be a more interesting (or at least more consistent) year in popular music than 2012. Most of last year's valuable records were from unexpected sources, coming either from new faces, or old faces in new clothes, or old faces we hadn't heard from in a long damn time. These albums came as unexpected surprises, but were unfortunately few and far between, embedded in a slew of uninspiring if a tree falls in the woods records from the likes of Band of Horses, Aimee Mann, Dave Matthews Band, The Avett Brothers, and (I would dare to say) Beach House.
With a healthy handful of artists still overdue for a new record, 2013 seemed prepared to effortlessly outshine its predecessor. And from what we've seen of this year in music so far, that generalization is warranted. The Spring of 2013 in particular has demanded our attention with eagerly anticipated album drops from the likes of Hem, Streetlight Manifesto, Vampire Weekend, and Laura Marling. But since 2005 after releasing three of the twenty-first century's most spellbinding, addictive, and consistent albums, no other American band had higher expectations to pave the way for contemporary Rock n Roll's healthy trajectory than Brooklyn's The National. Towards the end of an international tour supporting the 2010 predecessor High Violet, the band began writing material for a new album. Through 2011 and 2012 the band began playing first drafts and demo versions of the new material, and slowly releasing information about a new album. And in May of 2013, they released the hugely anticipated 6th studio album, named Trouble Will Find Me.
I've listened to this like I've listened to every record by The National since The Cherry Tree EP. Very slowly. The music of The National is not something to be decided or understood on first impression. You have to let this music settle to see all its colors. The general effect is "I've listened to (whichever album) 3 or 4 times through now and I'm not sure I understand it and I'm not convinced it's anything special or important," followed shortly by "I still feel the same way but I can't stop listening to this and I don't want to listen to anything else." Trouble Will Find Me follows this pattern exactly - with the listener growing obsessed with and falling in love with each and every song, one at a time, over the course of months.
The music of the album is well-balanced, and hard to describe. When pressured for genre association, most reviews websites and catalogs will subject the album (as well as the band) to the immensely stupid catch-all of indie or indie rock, which is a word that doesn't seem to mean a goddamn thing anymore, if it ever did.
Wikipedia has a second genre tag on the album of "post-punk revival." This is also pretty unhelpful. That the genre is a revival seems largely redundant, because as far as I can tell punk has made a living off being dead, has spent a considerably greater amount of time being (very loudly) dead than alive, and might have even been dead the whole time. And even if it did manage to successfully die nobody knows when, or how many times, or the number of resurrection attempts there have been and which one we are currently on. The one thing I am certain of is that if there is an attempt being mounted to resurrect it, then it's probably not being spearheaded by Matt Berninger's rumbly mumbly self deprecating strongsad. Or else I have a vast, vast misinterpretation of the word punk.
There are also a few last.fm tags for the album pointing towards a consensus on its genre. One of them is chamber pop. Last.fm defines the music under this tag as being "characterized by an infusion of orchestral arrangements or classical style composition generally within an indie or indie pop setting." While temporarily forgiving the fact that this is an idea being defined by using undefined terms, the definition still doesn't convincingly apply to The National. This music sure as hell isn't composed in any classical style, and to be honest the orchestral arrangements are more ornamental than frontal. The band exists fundamentally on rock instrumentation. None of the official members play any of the orchestral instruments, none of the songs are demoed or composed with orchestral instruments, and the only thing the orchestral accompaniment "does" is embellishmental - it gets spread on top of a pre-existing rock song in the production phase of the record. Though I suppose this can still be a valid genre type, at a far stretch, depending on the liberties you care to take with "the i word" and how much importance you assign to the idea of "fusion."
Another last.fm tag is Slowcore. Aside from the endearing and self-parodying process of taking the suffix -core and mashing it onto the end of anything you want, The National's music is fairly mid-tempo, certainly not minimal, and is not *always* lyrically bleak or discouraging. So, once again, a very unhelpful if not misinformative label.
I mean, I guess I could sit here and skepticize and deconstruct this or any other art form or anything at all and drag it all the way down to the conclusion that nothing exists and if it did then it wouldn't matter. And that's terribly unfair and unproductive, as well as being highly unromantic. But it still doesn't justify how limiting and/or unreliable genre theory is in this case as well as in most cases.
And of course, after all this inarticulate masturbatory prognostication we still haven't broken any ground in describing the music, which further convinces me that genres and genre association really don't matter. They are, perhaps, useful in cataloging music, or in trying to communicate or discuss music without using the music itself, and maybe for some it is even helpful in discovering music. But genre association's strongest and saddest ramification seems to be that it quarantines artists into their own backyards. It is another way to try to label and categorize a living and growing thing, which us humans are so guilty of. It gives the impression that the expectation we have of musicians who want to impact pop culture is that they move to the appropriate city, plug into an established scene, and produce a very prescribed sound. The creative process is very much a divergent process in music as well as any other artistic discipline. And the epicenter from which your creations begin, including ideas like genre, instrumentation, tradition, music theory, and influences, must be seen as a point of reference from which you extend outwards, carving your own path, and not a central point which must be revolved around at a respectable radius. But this is already seeming highly tangential. So let's move on.
Matt Berninger, the band's lead singer and exclusive songwriter, is apparently okay with the fact that he's still mostly writing about distance, detachment, lack of confidence, and struggling with his past. His relationship with alcohol and dysfunctional social skills continue to persist and saturate this entire record. Instead of writing with these themes, to help explain or carry the way he feels about people or situations, Berninger makes the effort to simply and directly address the skeletons in his closet in the song "Demons."
This pattern can be observed generally in Berninger as he develops as a songwriter. His writing is shifting from descriptions and abstract images to more sharply defined summaries and metaphors. Which is not to say he has become monotonous or autobiographical - the images are what make the lyrics artistic, and the images are still there. But they are reflected or implied in the metaphors now. The images are peripheral, coincidental with the metaphors. Although those coincidences Berninger creates between what is said and what is imagined are very intentional. By definition, an intentional coincidence should be an oxymoron. But, such is art. Especially art done well.
In a recent article, Berninger discussed being more comfortable with his songwriting for Trouble after the confidence, success, and financial stability the band had gained from High Violet (the band had a long and wearisome history with monetary debt). He describes the songwriting process as mainly listening to the basic composition structures and melodies that the Dessner brothers would send him on demo tapes, and familiarizing himself with the music until he could write lyrics that "fit" the music. This is apparently the most motivated and enjoyed lyrical product Berninger has ever produced for The National. But it still feels very familiar to the band's longtime fans, and meets the high standard set by Violet and Boxer.
As aforementioned, Trouble implores a lot of orchestral accompaniment in its songs. From the glancing blow of the album which I have so far absorbed, it seems more prominent on this album than any other. Drummer Bryan Devendorf has made a name for himself over the band's career for creating highly interesting drum beats in otherwise common time signatures, and continues to uphold that reputation on this album. See "Heavenfaced" or "Graceless" for the best example of this.
In general, the album's music takes more rhythmic chances than ever before. The very opening track of the album, "I Should Live in Salt," has verses in mixed rhythm between 9/8 and 4/4, staggering the first half of every phrase or truncating the second half, depending on how you choose to look at it (most would interpret this as staggering). The very next song on the album is in an odd time signature - 7/4. Admittedly, it is the "easiest" of the odd sigs to listen to, but at this point in pop culture it's still considered unconventional (probably because it is still un-danceable for most party cultured westerners). And
these were the two songs selected for the album's first and second released singles (correction: "Demons" was released as a single, "Salt" was not). Brave indeed.
Vocally, Matt Berninger is very famous for his muddy baritone and remarkable smoothness at the bottom of his vocal range. But this album is as stratospherically high as I've ever heard Matt's voice, particularly on "Salt," "Hard to Find," and "Pink Rabbits." His pronunciations and the focus of the voice and his resonance is affected when he reaches into the upper limits of his range. This album's vocal performance and how well-rounded his vowel soundings especially have become would be considered his most "classically correct" performance to date, far removed from how intensely wide stretched and marbles-in-your-mouth his singing was in lower registers and on earlier albums, especially Alligator and High Violet.
The album is very spatial, gaseous, inconsolable and unreliable. But it's the best and most readily available point of reference for which to judge the kind of contemporary music we are most likely to remember and preserve 10 or 100 years in the future. Everybody in the world is trying to wrap their heads around this thing right now. Knowing and recognizing the warmth and familiarity these gentlemen continue to give us, reaching and flailing for something to attach ourselves to, and not feeling the least bit frustrated with our expected and inevitable failure to fully understand. Come join the party. You're the only one invited.
Trouble Will Find Me: a series of confusing yet convincing images and observations.
Recorded in New York City. Released in North America on May 17, 2013, 4AD Records. Produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner.
01. I Should Live in Salt
03. Don't Swallow the Cap+
05. Sea of Love
07. This is the Last Time
10. I Need My Girl
12. Pink Rabbits
13. Hard to Find
+ - released as a single
Band's official site; Trouble Will Find Me
*"Series of confusing yet..." is not an official title, and should not be associated with any copyright claims or infringements. I have no money please don't take it thanks.
"I won't be vacant anymore"