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The Trouble with The National

May 20, 2013
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The National sound bored.

Trouble Will Find Me, the sixth album from the Ohio transplants, while meticulously crafted, fails to energize in the same way their previous records did. Gone is the nervous energy of Alligator or the fevered urgency of High Violet. It’s a fine LP I guess–The National are too talented to produce cut-rate music–but it is a work that leaves a lot on the table.

Quietly, Matt Berigner, the baritone frontman, has written some of the best lyrics of the past decade. While a few gems find their way in here (“I was teething on roses/I was in guns and noses”), many read as weak and dashed off. “Demons” is a questioning of spirituality, a theme found throughout the record, and unfortunately devolves to Berigner proclaiming, “When I walk into a room/I do not light it up/Fuck.” Fuck, indeed. There’s a sense that maybe The National have said all they have to say. With one of the strongest catalogs in indie rock, many of these songs feel unnecessary, a step back from their somber, late-’80s-inspired dance music they are known for.

“Don’t Swallow The Cap” sounds like a Joy Division b-side, which is an easy notion, but The National have proven they’re at their best exploring new ground. The otherwise catchy track feels like the band is just going through the motions. “I Should Live In Salt” starts with a strummed acoustic guitar and Berigner practically slurring his words. It’s an odd opener, but none of these songs feel like openers. They feel like songs normally sequenced at track eight, to be dusted off as deep cuts.

Where “Trouble Will Find Me” does succeed is in the quieter moments. “I Need My Girl”, while not fancy, slows things down, with just a clean finger-picked guitar taking center stage, allowing Berigner to coat the song in his velvet voice. “Heavenfaced”, though, tries similar things, but falls apart as Berigner attempts to hit a higher register. Bryan Devendorf’s signature buzz rolls take “Sea of Love,” the album’s best track, to an invigorating climax filled with an energy the rest of the album lacks.

What is disappointing is that, for the first time, The National took risks and failed to live up to them. It is unclear where songs like “Fireproof” were meant to go, three minutes of piano and a marching drumbeat that leads nowhere. The National, with an impressively robust catalog behind them, have nothing left to prove, which makes this album all the more baffling. While it might be worth a cursory listen, “Trouble Will Find Me” has nothing to say, and even worse, fails to entertain.

Austin, Texas. Good with words.