Time has been kind to the National. A band of hard-won intensity that has aged into their talents, their slow rise culminated in 2010’s High Violet, an album brimming with surprise anthems that could sneak up on you and still be easily forgotten – making their inevitable rediscovery that much more sweet.
While the entwining guitars of the Dessner brothers provided the perfect foil to Bryan Devendorf’s bruising yet versatile drumming style, singer Matt Berninger was left to settle into his unapologetic baritone on High Violet. And with this follow-up, Trouble Will Find Me, the National have made the decision to push Berninger front and centre. Not that he wasn’t already the band’s mumbling focal point, but the intricacy and anthemic melancholy of High Violet have been restrained in order to accentuate Berninger’s words and struggles. It is, to put it mildly, a break-up album.
Actually, Trouble Will Find Me is more than a break-up album; it is what comes of leafing through one’s anthology of pathological romantic failings. Berninger is compelled to replay mistakes over and over and always in search of the most crushing blows. It is an album of great introspection, inescapable regret and one that finds Berninger seeking solace in despondency. He finds there’s an imbibing comfort when internalising his anguish, and he dominates Trouble Will Find Me for better or worse.
Lead single ‘Demons’ best encapsulates Trouble and the themes running around Berninger’s head. Each verse overflows with words, and the ever-present medlodica line provides a sedate contrast to an unusually talkative Berninger. He sings, giving himself over to the pain that defines him (“It becomes the crux of me”) and Trouble Will Find Me as a whole. The “chorus” of “I stay down with my demons” is suddenly imbued with power to bring the song to a fitting climax – it’s as if Berninger shrugs his shoulders and renders musical catharsis.
Opener ‘I Should Live in Salt’ and ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’ bookend ‘Demons’, coming to similarly effective conclusions without feeling like complete songs – a criticism that can be levelled at a majority of tracks on Trouble Will Find Me. The Dessners’ guitars are sparse and elliptical, careful not to tread on Berninger’s words, and so Devendorf is forced into the role of musical protagonist. Indeed, it is not until fifth track ‘Sea of Love’, a hectic blend of militaristic drums and slashing guitars, that the National allow themselves a rare injection of energy.
‘Heavenfaced’ and ‘This Is the Last Time’ excel in spite of sparing instrumentation and Berninger’s all-too-maudlin appearance. The former slowly takes hold with only Berninger and the plaintive strains of Aaron Dessner’s guitar forcing the issue, while ‘This Is the Last Time’ is altogether more sinewy, the dying shout of “I won’t be vacant anymore” giving way to a rather wonderful duet between Berninger and a female voice on a final painstaking refrain as strings and bass swell dystopically in the margins.
“I do my crying underwater / I cannot get down any farther” is just one of the telling lines packed into ‘Demons’ and introduces the sea as the metaphorical body that both consumes and numbs Berninger’s misery. It’s a persistent motif that demonstrates his isolated turmoil rather splendidly, but a constant barrage of despair becomes very tiring over 13 songs, especially when there’s little of audible interest happening elsewhere. He admits on ‘Slipped’, another highlight, “I keep coming back here where everything slipped”, and ruinous love proves to be a drug he cannot quit. That praised refrain that ends ‘This Is the Last Time’ goes: “It takes a lot of pain / to pick me up” – this pain is both a buoy and an anchor for Berninger and Trouble Will Find Me.
With Berninger lamenting the losses of Jennifer (twice), Jo, Grace and the other nameless women (including the mystery southern belle of ‘Slipped’) that haunt Trouble, it is left to the melodic ‘Pink Rabbits’ to saves the second half from repetitive self-parody before the tumult subsides on ‘Hard to Find’, the rather optimistic closing number filled with blossoming guitars and indie rom-com potential.
Trouble indulges Berninger without second thought to a counteracting distraction. The Dessners all but recede into the background over these 55 minutes, leaving the all-Devendorf rhythm section as the frontman’s sole consolation. Although he has always been their disheveled heart, Matt Berninger is not all the National have to offer, but Trouble Will Find Me is stunted for living in his lengthy shadow.