It’s true, consistency does have its advantages. There is a fine line between finding the formula that works for you and exploring all facets of it, and simply being content to stagnate in the one pool you feel comfortable in. However, there is something to be said about a band who, for over a decade, have managed to release over a dozen albums and EPs under the same formula, and not sound tired or stale.
The National’s 9th full length release, Trouble Will Find Me, contains all that fans (and detractors) have come to expect; simple, unforgettable melodies, orchestrated, minor chord despair, the morose, melancholy baritone groan of singer Matt Berninger as he publicly mulls the pain of young adulthood. While that seems to contain nearly every cliché of ‘hipster music’ (and it does), The National manages, both here and on every other record they have put out, to make the lows wrenching, tangible, as opposed to self serving, overly dramatic whining, a pitfall that traps nearly every other band’s attempts at somber.
The lead track, “I Should Live In Salt,” constantly bemoaning “you should know me better than that,” is the perfect exit to any emotionally exhausting day. Like most National tunes, it’s anything but uplifting. The niche the band has found is not as the friend who comes over to roust you from wallowing in post-breakup misery, but as the surrogate for human contact, affirming feelings of despair. Anger is disguised by hurt and disappointment, only appearing occasionally to release a trademark fierce quip. Berninger’s breathless suffering is the physical manifestation of a thoroughly crushed heart. Placed over the band’s intricately simple foundation, it creates a hypnotically haunting soundscape, at times strangely reminiscent of My Morning Jacket’s more downtrodden songs.
It is also the album’s catchiest number, with a hook that sticks and is as close as the record comes to inviting you to sing along.
The vocal rumblings of “Demons” is as close an impression as humanly possible to the ominous rolls of thunder emanating from the blackest of storm clouds that just hasn’t quite reached you yet. “Fireproof” pairs the kinetic excitement of a march on brushes with the numb longing of acoustic fingerpicking and a swelling cello. Emotionally manipulative, yes, but it works.
The downfall of this, and nearly every other full length National record is that it’s simply too heavy to digest in one sitting. Without a long break every 4 or 5 songs, listening becomes a taxing chore, and every song begins to echo the sore muscles and mental fatigue the listener is no doubt experiencing. “Sea of Love” and “This Is The Last Time” become hopelessly boring, and “Humiliation” almost intolerable.
But, taken in small doses, each song’s beauty and rawness can be felt and appreciated. There is not one misstep on the entire thing, fitting perfectly into the National canon as new, yet utterly familiar material.