All of my waking hours in the last week (and some of my sleeping ones as well) have been spent listening to the new National record, Trouble Will Find Me (out May 20 on 4AD). I am thoroughly taken by this narcotic, melodic speedball of record, all dark hues and complicated beauty. The National is one of my favorite bands, and I’ve waited three years for this. From the understated opening notes and breakingly delicate vocals, this record is magnificence that was absolutely worth the wait.
I think the magic combination that I so appreciate about the National is the way their music is both sentimental (“I am secretly in love with / everyone that I grew up with”) and gorgeously fatalistic (“I have only two emotions / careful fear and dead devotion / I can’t get the balance right”) at the same time. It’s such an interesting and noteworthy combination in music; that constant engagement with things we often think of as being very much at-odds. The Guardian wrote a piece about this record, and I re-read this sentence a few times: “What they have perfected, over the course of six albums, is a kind of glistening melancholy, a strangely beautiful dourness.”
I got stuck on the part that said that it was strange to find beauty in dourness, because lately I have been challenging myself to see a natural interweaving, and not something strange at all. I was reminded of something I wrote for that brilliant Cold Specks video, which wove together the decomposing and the budding, the avalanche with the slicing forward. Even though I have trouble articulating the way this concept looks in my head, I think it is the same reason I love The National – their songs are all both, at once.
“When they ask what do I see, I say: a bright white beautiful heaven hanging over me,” Matt sings on this (very dark) record. It’s there, all at once: in that blinding brilliance, the desire for redemption, that sad shitty feeling in your gut when you realize that things are so very broken everywhere. When I think of that, I shield my eyes because we can all agree that sometimes it’s too much, and sometimes we default to lingering in the swamp. But one thing that Berninger’s words –and this band’s elegant instrumentation– will always do for me is sharpen that sinuous zone between the celestial and the torturous.
Matt Berninger is my all-time favorite lyricist: he writes intellectual, spidery lyrics that can be so achingly spot-on in what they evoke, and also don’t shy away from the ugliest things we can think. I had to start keeping a note on my phone to write down all the mindblowing lines on this record that keep jumping out at me (or at least what I think they say). Lines as simple and profound as: “When I walk into a room, I do not light it up. Fuck.” Or these lines from “Slipped”:
“I’m having trouble inside my skin
I try to keep my skeletons in
I’ll be a friend, and a fuck, and everything
but I’ll never be anything you ever want me to be…
I keep coming back here where everything slipped
…I will not spill my guts out.”
Drummer Bryan Devendorf is probably also my favorite drummer; his percussion will often feel blissfully narcotic to me, in its tight persistence and crisp unpredictability. To me, his drums speak another language and contribute to the meaning of the song just as much as the words themselves do. Throughout this record, and every National record, one of their strengths is in changing time signatures, sudden shifts and (especially) hesitations. In a recent interview with The Gothamist, Bryan talked about the song “Hard to Find” being a “beautiful piece of music, around this odd fixed-meter thing — it’s very natural and, for lack of a better term, human.”
Similarly guitarist Aaron Dessner talks about the “funny extra beat” in opening song “I Should Live In Salt.” All throughout this record my brain kept lighting up at unexpected percussive joys. “Apartment Story” (on 2007′s Boxer) has long been a song that I will put it on the headphones if I want to sleep, using that rhythmic ferocity to mute and soften the corners of all my non-stop thoughts. On this new record, “Graceless” is an immediate standout to me that does the same: over an unrelenting hammering of classy drums, it’s addictive, with brilliant lines like “All of my thoughts of you / bullets through rotten fruit.” Wow.
The multi-instrumental capacities and coherence of The National have only become more pronounced throughout their six records. “I Need My Girl” starts with these weird little needling guitar tones that feel like all the persistent thoughts that start pricking at you in the darkness as soon as you turn off the lights to go to sleep; all the insecurities, all the things we’ve said that may have, in fact, been a little too aggressive — even as they helped keep ourselves intact, hold our shit together, help us gather our shit in. “Heavenfaced,” feels like a bruise forming, or slipping into some sort of storm-swollen dark river. It has one of the most beautiful breaks on the record, and gives us this lyric, which is perfect:
“Let’s go wait out in the fields with the ones we love.”
Many of the Nationalisms that I love reappear here on this record: chaotic background yelling, persistently superb percussion, and haunting female vocal harmonies (from guests like Annie Clark/St. Vincent, Sharon Van Etten, and Nona Marie Invie from Dark Dark Dark). Sufjan Stevens is on here, and so is Doveman (remember this wonderful track?). And somehow the sum is greater than all those (pretty great) parts.
Lots of people are calling this record the best one yet from The National. To me, that’s like picking a favorite child, or chocolate/beer/ice cream/any beloved thing, for that matter. This is an astoundingly good record that you should get lost in next week, and for many weeks and months to follow. How do they keep doing it? It must be magic. Or chemistry. Or something else I’m just busy deeply, deeply appreciating over here.
Spotted in Berlin