Drama and Discovery – these are two essential tenets to my history as an audiophile. I admitted to my facebook friends and colleagues here at Popblerd that I’d missed the boat for the past 13 years on The National. My bad. I’m making up for lost time and have immersed myself in their discography over the past couple of weeks.
My listening and journey can be summed up in this arc — U2’s The Joshua Tree (1987), The Cure’s Disintegration (1989), Depeche Mode’s Violator (1990), Metallica’s Black Album (1991), Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream (1993), Pearl Jam’s No Code (1996), Deftones Around the Fur (1997), NIN’s The Fragile (1999), Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American (2001), QOTSA’s Songs for the Deaf (2002), My Chemical Romance’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge (2004), Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days (2004), Ryan Adam’s & The Cardinal’s Cold Roses (2005), Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago (2008) and now I’ve got the task of deciding which album The National have produced that’s the most memorable. All I know in this moment is that this band is amazing, memorable and part of this arc. It’s a week prior to the release of The National’s Trouble Will Find Me, their sixth proper full-length since 2001 and this is where I start the immersion process into this album.
The National are a group of confidence men, not to be confused with “con men”. These five individuals exude a quiet confidence in their musicianship like no other band I’ve ever seen or heard before. In reading up on them, I’ve noted that they take from a variety of genres – most notably to me chamber pop (which, while I’d previously admired, I could never really access the genre on its own), British pop and Americana. While one could say they’ve been prolific (two additional EPs and a deluxe “extra disc” of material for 2010’s High Violet have also been released) over the course of 13 years, their quality and their ability to hone their craft has not diminished. Rather it’s seemed to flourish with each successive release.
Lead-off track “I Should Live In Salt” sounds like Ray Lamontagne hooked up in the studio with David Bowie. Matt Beringer’s familiar sad man croon wanders in and a beautiful, airy guitar solo is sprinkled into the latter half of the track by Aaron Dessner.
“Demons” asks the listener to sink down with Beringer in the murky depths. A mid-tempo stream of consciousness guides the vocals, while strings and horns are layered in to give depth. The Devendorf rhythm section is deft at pulling back the reins and providing a road-map for all of these other things to take place.
“Don’t Swallow The Cap” is an almost new-wave occurrence, driven by a decidedly more upbeat piano and percussion. I recall reading recently a description of Matt’s lyricism as wry fatalism. An expanded world view offers up the following nugget though: “I’m not alone/I’ll never be/into the void/I’ll never be.” Perhaps there is some room for light between all the clouds.
On “Fireproof”, the album’s shortest track at just shy of three minutes, I’m reminded of Sting’s solo albums in the mid-90’s and jazz impulses musically. It’s a beautiful ballad. “Jennifer you are not the only one/to sit awake/until the wild feelings leave you.” To name check another influence here, I’d reference the 90’s band Morphine and their occasional brilliance at ballads (think “In Spite Of Me”, or “Gone For Good”).
“Sea of Love” is the album’s driving, propulsive single. It manages to twist and turn its subject matter like waves upon the water. While the video (below) has already been shot, I could very easily see the band aboard a royal vessel while broken-hearted zombies scrambled down the beach and into the water as the tide crashes around them trying to reach the boat.
“Heavenfaced” is a track Coldplay would love to have the skill to pull off. This is the difference between a band with arena aspirations (the former) who only sees in technicolor versus a band that swings for the fences but is more world-weary in its years. This takes away nothing from Coldplay’s successes but from a critical standpoint – outlines where they seem to have stalled in some circles.
“This is The Last Time” draws a musical correlation to some of Kate Bush’s material and outlines a co-dependent relationship that tries to find the bittersweet among the sour. “Graceless” starts on a galloping drum beat and some sparse piano. It builds in crescendo before falling back on the beat and this brilliant coda: “There’s a science to walking through windows without you.”
“Slipped” seems to follow the arc of the story from “This is The Last Time” in almost Springsteen-like fashion: asking a former lover not to grieve or to change but rather to sympathize and recognize the acceptance of the loss of the relationship. There’s a true sense of loss in Beringer’s relaying the message despite a proclamation that “I will not spill my guts out”. This is juxtaposed against “I won’t need any help to be lonely when you leave me.” The horn section utilized adds a depth to the words.
“I Need My Girl” manufactures a synthesized horn section sound with a twinkling, cycling guitar (reminiscent of contemporary Bon Iver). Once again, the human nature to reminisce and to analyze things we could have done differently in a relationship is mused over. The exorcising of these demons is both cathartic for the vocalist/lyricist and perfect fodder to build a soundtrack around.
The last quarter of the album could have probably been trimmed or mined for b-sides as “Humiliation”, “Pink Rabbits”, and “Hard to Find” (with the closing track in this case leaning too heavily on the Coldplay reference) don’t feel on par with the first ten tracks. All in all though, this album is something to be quite proud of. It’s taken everything these fellows have crafted so tightly to date and loosened things up enough to create an achingly beautiful collection of songs.