Wrapped in Trouble’s Warm Embrace – The National Strikes Back

everything I love is on the table, everything I love is out to sea.  I’m not alone, I’ll never be…

If there is one constant in the work of the Brooklyn-based, Ohio-bred quintet The National, it is the pervading pallor of darkness that ostensibly shrouds their work. Try finding a review, interview, or passing statement about the band that doesn’t make reference to the brooding and gloomy nature of their work.  Admittedly, even I when describing their work to folks fall into this trap.  And, to be fair, it isn’t entirely an inapt description of what transpires in a typical record from Matt Berninger and the brothers Dessner and Devendorf[1].  Look, just take the title of their most recent release on 4AD, Trouble Will Find Me, it doesn’t exactly evoke images of frivolity, mirth, or sunshine and rainbows.  Or, better yet, plug in the headphones and listen to the opening track “I Should Live in Salt” with its plaintive, morose timbre and narrative.  These songs are not for the faint of heart, or so it seems.

music-the-national-trouble-will-find-meAppearances, in art, as often they tend to be, are deceiving.  Despite depicted as such, The National are not poet laureates of melancholy.  Of course, she wanders through their work like all dramas about the lives we lead, appearing as the ostensible central character at times and duplicitous foil at others.  But, rarely does she get top billing.  A close and attentive listen (or immersion) to The National starting with Alligator to the present will illustrate that there is actually a pervading sense of optimism and undeniable passion for life pulsing through their work, often cloaked in layers of somber musical motifs.  To me they are indie-rock’s 21st Century embodiment of existentialism’s willingness to confront the apparent emptiness of a “god-less” universe and choosing to persevere despite no guarantee of after-life or “truth”.  They have stared into the abyss and decided to embrace it and look above and beyond.  It is an act of brilliant defiance.  Yes, when I hear a National song I think of Nietzsche and remember how he would remark that “to live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”  Or, maybe, even more apt, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”   The National embrace life as the complex and complicated journey it is, filled with dueling moments of epiphany and failure, exhilaration and recriminations, beauty and darkness; each opposition or duality informing and expanding the other.  For we only know the highs of life because we have traveled through the difficult days and each lives in tandem with the other.  This is how I see the world, a twisted cacophonous pastiche of exhilarating uncertainty and complicated beauty.   I think that is how the gentlemen of The National see it too.

The general consensus is that the Trouble Will Find Me is not The National’s “best work” and, yet, almost everyone I know that has spent any time with this record comes away wanting to return.  Whether it is finding a personal connection in a song, a phrase, a feeling or unable to untie itself from its embrace, it lingers in one’s consciousness like a loyal confidant.  Personally, although not totally captivated by the lead singles, I decided to defer judgment until the whole work came through.  After sitting with the album alone for an initial listen, I was hooked.  The record starts almost in media res with “I Should Live in Salt”, a retort to a conflict or slight beyond the frame of the song’s narrative, and yet, the listener knows this story all too well: you should know me better than that.  From there it explodes into oscillating flows of gnawing self-awareness (e.g., “Demons”, “Graceless”) and willful assertion (e.g., “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, “This is the Last Time”).  I know that like its predecessor High Violet, the vinyl exterior will get worn from repeated listens and possibly scratched from exuberant, amorphous dancing in the dark to its more aggressive moments like “Sea of Love”, waving a fist in the air and joining Matt and Sharon Van Etten in extorting, “Hey Joe sorry I hurt you, but they love is a virtue. . . don’t they?”  But more likely than not, I will also find more connection (and hidden memories) in the all too true “I stay down with my demons” from “Demons”. Then again, maybe I’ll wallow in the entrancing guitar hook from “I Need My Girl” with its stripped down and naked admission of reliance on others.  Matt Berninger has a way of turning admissions of reliance, weakness, or ostensible embarrassment into profoundly empowering and unifying moments.  I still cringe when I hear him unabashedly declaim, “I was afraid I’d eat your brains, cause I am evil” from “Conversation 16”, recognizing that we all have these monstrous moments between self-realization and self-abasement, living our morally contradictory lives.  So how do these boys from the Buckeye state with an ongoing residency in the borough of Brooklyn achieve such a profound sense of emotional depth?  Perhaps it’s their penchant for brutally honest lyrics without remorse.  At times, I am reminded of artists in their prime like U2 form Boy to Joshua Tree or Springsteen from Born to Run to Nebraska, or R.E.M.  from Murmur to Automatic for the People (with a slight exception for Green).  Although not replicating their sound, they resonate in the same realm, finding universal appeal through the expression of the mundane and not fearful of going to the places we don’t want to talk about.  Great artists are willing to go to the abyss, look into it, and fill the emptiness and expanse with harmony and wisdom.

So, if you haven’t already, don’t fret about going to the precipice of the cliff, listen to the National’s newest record:  Trouble Will Find Me

Because sometimes a little trouble is what you need in your life.

[1] Yes, that is two pairs of brothers in the band. I don’t play poker but I think two pairs is a pretty good hand and it makes for a solid band in this case.  Also, if you have ever seen them live (a definite must) you’ll see that the brothers all rotate instruments; that much talent is just wonderfully sickening.

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