Enervating blood ties, romances won and lost, marital adversities, fading bonds of friendship: perhaps more than any other contemporary band The National’s very artistic make-up is predicated on the nuances of human relations. Such a nexus of interrelational trials and tribulations once again rears its head on their eagerly-anticipated sixth LP Trouble Will Find Me.
The build-up to this record saw the release of Mistaken for Strangers, a tour-documentary which inadvertently turned into an exhaustive portrait of the brothers Berninger, bringing another fraternal pairing into the band’s field of consciousness alongside founding sibling-sets the Dessners and Devendorfs.
It is in that vein that opener ‘I Live In Salt’ arrives. Typically for the band it’s less of a kicking-down-the-door affair, more of an unexpected call at two in the morning. Wine bottle empty and heart full, the voice at the other end is possessed with the sort of earnest, deep-set confession to a loved one that ultimately came out of the documentary process: “I should live in salt for leaving you behind”. In their repertoire of album catalysts it’s not as enrapturing as ‘Secret Meeting’, as stately as ‘Fake Empire’, or as resoundingly titanic as ‘Terrible Love’, but even with the switch in tonal tact its measured, powerful build ensures that it’ll take a heart of stone not to ultimately melt.
This conflation of the subdued and gut-wrenching here typified, ultimately proves to be the underlying essence of the record. Where their peers might have been drawn towards the overblown – a concept album here, a gospel choir there – The National appeared to have responded to their growing success by turning more than ever into themselves.
Their craft is honed to its utmost, with the production in particularly being utterly gorgeous. Despite the overarching subdued, often heavy, atmosphere, each intricate arpeggio, detailed driving drum-line is crystal clear. Matt’s vocals in particular have never sounded stronger, impossibly somehow even deeper than before at points, acutely imbued with a mature weariness that’s steadily overtaken the mid-30s anguish that characterised Alligator.
They still possess that unceasing and sometimes uncanny capacity for their songs to, all of a sudden somehow find one more thing to break inside when caught in a certain light. The titular trouble that has found them will undoubtedly find you, but something is lost: there’s an absence of potent release; the taut, ragged-edge of catharsis which has marked some of their strongest work is generally absent. ‘Sea of Love’ comes closest to capturing such visceral highs, whilst the subtly sharp gear-shifts to soaring magnificence in ‘Graceless’ and ‘Humiliation’ particularly trigger all the chills to match the ocean of feels. But over the course of an hour, these moments of manifest energy can sometimes feel few and far between.
This is the bizarre conundrum, a lack of cohesive brio, belying the fact that the songs are nearly all singularly brilliant. The second-side is just an exceptional sequence, and taken individually, tracks like ‘Fireproof’ and particularly ‘This Is the Last Time’ – with its build into a disquieting swirl of strings, feedback and Sharon Van Etten backing – are undeniably stellar compositions. Yet, they ultimately feel somewhat lost in the tide of the record, where perhaps these individual moments might have soared in various manners on previous records.
Nevertheless, even with this predominance of slow-burn, and the lingering itch for some all-consuming moment of crowning, raw-throat inducing transcendence, it is next-to impossible to find something to actively disparage. There isn’t a single weak song in sight, and the consistent astute excellence of this band’s output is still in full-effect, something to behold, admire and treasure. There could be something more, but nothing significant has been lost, and their legions of adorers will still be found.
That’s more than enough to ask by this point.