The National – Trouble Will Find Me (First Impressions)
(If you are reading this line then the following is more rough thoughts more than an actual review. I’ll update and refine it as I continue to listen to the CD in question)
Trouble finds us all sometimes. Everyone has stories of those times that they screwed up, cracked up or got caught up in some behavior that was less than their best; even us critics. Trouble finds us too, and double-quick when it comes time to try reviewing music; arguably the most porcelain and personal of artistic mediums. An example of my having made such a screw-up was my active disappointment in High Violet, the last album that The National released. A mistake that I didn’t plan on making twice.
VIolet didn’t strike me much at first, nor did it stick with me after the first few spins and so i sort of just gave up on it; until it was released to rave reviews from the biggest audience that the band had yet seen. So I tried it again and came around a little, just in time to see the band live where the new songs clicked into place perfectly, to the point that it is now one of my favorite of all their records and some of its songs still the most spun in my stereo. So with their latest I’m hesitant to make any grand qualitative declarations, but I will say that I again struggled to access the album despite definitely appreciating many of its individual aspects.
So what makes Trouble Will Find Me an underwhelming album? Firstly, I should know them better than to call it that and I should live in salt for saying such …whatever that means, but I will nevertheless because after all the hype an expectation the record begins with its weakest tracks, off the track from the get-go. After the album opener that I just liberally quoted come the two previously released tracks Demons and Don’t Swallow the Cap which never really sung for me as singles and open the album as slowly as Terrible Love and Sorrow did High Violet, but they’re also much smaller and more understated than those two songs; as the album is as a whole. There is nothing inherently wrong with the songs, in fact they each have some strong moments scattered through them, but they lack an impact.
Then comes Fireproof a short, simple and quiet sort of interludal track that starts slow and kicks up just before it closes. It works as a sort of tendon, stringing together that first section of the album with what comes next. Sea of Love is a sort of centerpiece for the album: it hits the first hook, seeds the title in its lyrics and sets the album off. Graceless follows up on that momentum soon after, another strong mid-tempo track ( which is about as fast as one should expect to see from this act). Even the more somber songs separating these two have a certain tempting intensity to them; this section was the stand out over my first few spins but with speed comes shallowness and so these songs have failed to strengthen much with further listens.
Even so I’m not sure how well any of these songs would stand solo; the album as a whole lacking any obvious ‘singles’. Of course for a band like The National singles aren’t the artistic aim of any studio sessions, but its telling I think that none resulted; so too that there are four or five different tracks that they are trying out in the press and publicity. In compensation for this the album flows much more from song to song, serving more as a single monotonous unit than their last effort, which was a sensational scattering of tracks more that it was a whole. In this way Trouble represents a sort of return to the structure of their earlier album Alligator after two albums of more audience friendly material.
Heightening this sense of cohesion is the fact that the album serves a sort of concept; a character mentioned in one song returns in another and may even be the protagonist of others. For the first time ‘character’ actually feels like an appropriate word to use in relation to Matt’s lyrics; appropriate because while most of the songs strut out the same topics of love, self-loathing and substance abuse that have been the soul of all his work, here he sings about them from the perspective of people other than himself. Sure its not new for The National to mention names, to sing about people, but here he sings as them and this is interesting. The trait is most obvious and most effective when that person is off the opposite gender, as is the case during most of the later songs. The meaning of all this will however require more time with the record.
I think there is something quite telling in the fact that so many of the stories told are of or about women; it lends a certain femininity to the tracks, despite Matt’s metal baritone. The gentleness, the smoothness that this brings to the band separates their work here from the rough and chaotic masculinity of earlier releases. The sorrow on show here is of a different sort and I think that is why I struggled to sync in with it initially, why the album may seem overly understated, but during the final stretch of tracks – especially the Humiliation / Pink Rabbits double, coincidentally my favorite section of the record – he really lets this style shine all the way through and it leads to a new sort of sound for the band, an intensely intriguing one that I wish the whole album had.
Perhaps explaining the shift in emotion – a shift towards subtlety and softness, away from the scale and sharpness of past songs – is the birth of Matt’s daughter. Many of the loving lines that he lets out during the album seem either directed at her or about his experiences raising her which, while cute, lacks some of the edge that he normally handles so well. Afraid of Everyone suggested that she could still be a source of great songs, the fear and tension brought on by the shift in lifestyle fascinating, but as time has passed his personal life has seemingly only gotten more stable and thus his inspiration maybe a little stale.
The album also employs a strict, yet inconsistent rhyming scheme during sections of certain songs; which is at once weird and what drives many of their better moments. When he starts to stress his songwriting skills with adhering to this structure it lends the lyrics a certain energy and the band plays up to match it, but for the most part you can hear when a word has simply been used for the sake of the scheme, which isn’t what I want from him as a writer.
I’m similarly torn on the length. Arguably the more of National that we get the better but this album seems almost too big – it’s their longest yet by a considerable amount of minutes – and it feels bloated as a result. Thirteen tracks is a lot, but more than that each track here is, like recent Strokes songs, structured as two-to-four small sections into themselves; each with distinct tempos, melodies and lyric structures. It is then a big album, a bold album and yet an album focused on a very narrow niche of style so it only makes sense that it is a tough one to take in but i’ve been trying and have found that I’m liking it more and more the more time that I spend with it. Maybe it’s just Stockholm syndrome but I’m steadily falling for Trouble despite its flaws (which are comparatively minute; a below average National album is still so much better than nearly all else out there), so when you get it I recommenced doing the same, embracing this and letting Trouble find you.