The National’s High Violet was a near perfect assemblage of songs that utilized a distinct and arresting sonic palette of instrumentation that simultaneously sounded enormous while nearly vanishing into the darkness from whence it came. Floating above the mixes, Matt Berninger’s baritone vocals provided the backbone for the collection of somber pop numbers. Now, the band follows up three years later with their sixth studio album, Trouble Will Find Me, out tomorrow on indie staple 4AD Records. The greatest obstacle facing the album is that it isn’t High Violet. And I don’t mean that it’s not as good, simply that the band’s previous record has become so lauded and loved that anything else begins at a disadvantage.
Trouble is every bit as elegant and refined as its predecessor, but veers away from some of the ethereal negative space and pervasive, unified austerity that dominated High Violet. Foregoing some of their imposing tendencies, the band expands the pop format found on earlier albums and adds notable embellishments such as female backing vocals by Annie Clark (St. Vincent) and Sharon Van Etten, brief flashes of strings, and more balanced arrangements. Ultimately, while it would be difficult to improve upon High Violet, this effort merges that album’s distinctly solemn sound with the best elements of their early work to create an excellent album.
“I Should Live In Salt” isn’t as immediate and raw as High Violet’s “Terrible Love” and takes a few listens before it feels like it has the power of an opener. Like much of the album, its complexity takes some time to wrap oneself around, but eventually reveals itself as even richer and more rewarding. The production of “Demons” recalls David Bowie’s “Heroes” and operates as a thematic opposite to that classic song. The bridge is phenomenal, built on a stripped down mix driven by strings and toms. “Don’t Swallow The Cap” is the first track that boasts an immediate infectiousness as Matt Berninger maneuvers through ambling and rapid lyrical delivery. “Sea of Love” falls into this same camp, kicking out upbeat but sullen pop in the first minute before the instrumentation falls away and a buzzing guitar and plodding drum provide a skeletal framework over which Berninger intones, “If I stay here, trouble will find me.”
The National continue stalwartly forward as the record unfolds, delivering solid songs throughout. Despite distinctly depressing lyricism and ideology, hopeful musical motifs crop up in the songs, perhaps most notably in “Graceless,” with its sunny synths, quick percussion, and uplifting melody. Berninger even sings, “Grace, put the flowers you find in a vase,” although I’m pretty sure Grace is a lost loved one or former lover. “Humiliation” bears a similarly airy melody, particularly in light of the truly dark depths of which The National is capable.
Following acoustic chord driven songs, eighties synths, and distorted guitars on early tracks, Trouble Will Find Mecontinues to explore varied arrangements in its second half: the minimalsm of piano ballad “Slipped,” skittering (perhaps Sufjan Stevens constructed) electronics on “I Need My Girl,” the straightforward “Pink Rabbits,” and the sublime, gentle fall breeze of “Hard to Find.” It is in this variety that Trouble expresses its real power. The National has not only defined its own identity as a band but also created a specific blend of influences and styles that feels wholly new. After achieving this across five albums, culminating in masterpiece High Violet, they have the ability to move around within this space they’ve constructed. Less claustrophobic and confined than before, this is the sound of an accomplished band at full stride. Trouble Will Find Me is a highly dexterous, almost labyrinthine collection of magnificent songs.