Matt on Music: The National

Cincinnati indie band The National may have seemed a bit ordinary on their 2001 self-titled debut.
Musically, it was a basic alt-country album and, as far as songs go, it wasn’t anything special. Still, there was one saving grace: vocalist Matt Berninger’s baritone voice.

Berninger later went on to become possibly my favorite male vocalist of the 21st century and, while his voice isn’t best showcased on The National’s debut, it still stands out on the record as something truly special.

The band’s second album, 2003’s “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers,” moved more towards the sound that eventually defined the band. The songs were still lacking, but they were definitely getting somewhere.

On 2005’s “Alligator,” The National finally came into their own. The sound was rich, the songs felt complete, the hooks were catchier and Berninger had somehow become a spectacular melodist. Their 2007 follow-up, “Boxer,” continued with their new sound while also containing several classic songs, notably “Fake Empire” and “Apartment Story.”

The style that the band developed was unique, heavily layered post-punk revival that blurred the line between heavy and soft. A typical National song will often feature pounding drums, delicate piano, gruff vocals from Berninger and lots of strings. It’s an interesting sound but, like all interesting sounds, it only works if it has songs to back it up.

That’s why the band’s 2010 album “High Violet” was their biggest accomplishment yet. The production was stellar, it was consistent and it had the greatest song selection of the band’s career. “Terrible Love,” “Lemonworld” and especially the brilliant “Bloodbuzz Ohio” (which I listened to twice a day on average for about six months) were all among The National’s best work.
Beyond the quality of the sound and melodies, the lyrics were also hugely improved, with Berninger taking inspiration from his own life. “Afraid of Everyone,” notably, was about his fear and paranoia about being a new father.

So, “High Violet” was melodic, well-produced and relatable. The only question was whether The National could top it or if their sound had reached its peak.

“Trouble Will Find Me,” the group’s new album, does has its share of great songs. “Demons” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” the first two tracks released, are both highlights, while “I Should Live in Salt” is another very good opener from a band with a knack for them.
After “I Should Live in Salt,” “Demons” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap” open the album, a problem sets in. While much of “Trouble Will Find Me” houses fine production, too many of the songs fail to stick. This especially becomes an issue if you compare the album to “High Violet,” where the songs refused to leave your head after just one listen. Here, you have to force the majority of the tracks into your head.

There are moments on “Trouble Will Find Me” where I’m reminded why I love The National. Beyond the opening three tracks, there’s also “I Need My Girl” (a tragic love song on the level of “Terrible Love”) and “Pink Rabbits” (“Am I the one you think about/When you’re sitting in your fainting chair drinking pink rabbits?”). Meanwhile, “Slipped” features one of their finest lyrical hooks (“I’m having trouble inside my skin/I tried to keep my skeletons in”).

Beyond all these moments, this is a nice sounding album that often lacks substance. Tracks like “Fireproof,” “Sea of Love” and “This is the Last Time” just aren’t particularly memorable as songs.
Still, “Trouble Will Find Me” is worth checking out. If you’re a National fan, like myself, you’ll likely find some things you like here. If you’re not a National fan, you might want to steer clear of it. And, if you’ve never listened to The National, I’d recommend checking out their last three albums before you listen to this one and get the wrong impression.

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Demons,” “I Should Live in Salt,” “I Need My Girl,” “Don’t Swallow the Cap” and “Pink Rabbits.”

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