Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The National - Trouble Will Find Me


As I mentioned at the beginning of my Vampire Weekend review last week, I can easily be deemed a sort of shut-away from the whole US alternative scene at present. The viably-commercial huddle of bands such as Interpol, Modest Mouse, Wilco and the like don't necessarily not interest me, but this has always been an area I'm wary of exploring for simply that very reason. The feeling has always been one of anxious confusion as to whether what I'm expecting to turn up should weigh down what actually exists. The National are another fine example of my intimately indecisive nature, but while this is nothing of the band's own mistake, I can't help but feel having rung my fingers and my ears through their ten-year discography, that I'm missing something here. Taste is taste, sure...and everyone is caught in what is a hugely expansive web of subjectivity and personal influence over what we like and don't like. But while I could simply pass this band off and move onto the next, something irrefutably interesting still lingers like a voice in my head. I feel like I've still not hit the nail on the head, or that I'm not digging deep enough. It could be the five-piece's instrumental melancholy or lead vocalist Matt Berninger's wavering baritone that has me hook, line and sinker, but given how I've come to the point where I'm arguing with (shockingly) my own personal beliefs, for a man who hopes to come off as a reviewer of music, I'm sure you'd agree that's a pretty big fucking obstacle I've left myself. So here's hoping Trouble Will Find Me will at last but my mind at ease as to where I stand on this corner of alternative rock, and at last I can finally announce (or denounce) my beliefs to some personally objective detail of reason and justification.

For certain, The National's own personal skills at carving moody almost bluesy guitar rock isn't in any question on album six of their discography. I Should Live In Salt is a welcome and gestural reminder to the strength, and the simplicity, that acoustic instrumentation can bring to a band's sound. And even if there is a usage of synths moaning in the backdrop and wavering in-and-out of focus, it's the band's uncanny strength to keep a rhythm in check, that's as much comforting as it is attractive musically. Berninger's signature register and slightly crooned, distancing style of lyrical output, definitely adds to the song's, not-so-much sluggish, but slow-trodding, gestural tempo. 'You shouldn't know me better than that' he repeats throughout in a song that - while its lyrics are at times deliberately obscured by the instrumentation - definitely suggests a continual of the melancholic struggle, or more likely, that there's a stronger concern that such struggle is about to commence...once more. The following track Demons, carries through this slight skeptical charisma in Berninger's expression. Here, his vocals come away slightly less in cue on synchronous with the music's more exposed, open sweep of percussion and guitar feedback. But it's that state-of-mind objectivity and lack perhaps of movement, bizarrely,that actually adds a lot more liveliness and colour to a piece that, yes, isn't exactly joyously flurried with tone, but definitely makes most of its noir-esque surroundings. Even as the choral sections see Berninger attach himself to the rhythm of the music, there's still this lingering tension and anxiety that suggests (character-wise) he's rather disposed of this bond, than pleased.

Of course, the music isn't deliberately setting itself out to be outright rebellious or downright moody for the sake of it. At times, The National can be at their most emotive and rich sonically, when the layers of their production actually come together and join in the swing of context, rather than standing against it; leaving themselves to fight it out amongst each other for supremacy. Don't Swallow The Cap's piano-leaning ballad hinges emotionally on the pouring-out, but doesn't convey itself as self-defeating or splintered with scene-setting and flashback memorials of what's happened previous. Berninger's placement amid the piano keys and the rhythmic drum beats gives this song its collective nature. More-so, it's the clean production choices and how instrumentation is given space to breathe in equal opportunities - as much as they're able to withdraw from the gathering likewise - that paves the way potentally for allowing a new spin on what the context and meaning behind such sounds, actually reside around. But it's Sea Of Love that shows a undying sense of engagement, with borders; it's a track that shows The National emitting without running too far into the red. 'If I stay here/Trouble will find me' Berninger offers in the limp fuzz of electric guitars before the track ascends once more into traditionalistic alternative rock mustering. But again, Berninger's command and equalling of the instrumentation prevents the track from hurdling face-first into noise-drenched stadium euphoria (a sound which, despite its presence, wouldn't exactly, I feel, suit the emotion and atmosphere of the band's sound).

Heavenfaced is another example of Berninger opening up himself to richer, and potentially riskier, territories of vocal delivery. But there's no mistaking how intricate and deeply focused he is in delivering a song that, from the start, is blunt, straight-to-the-point and unrequited with honesty of his thoughts. 'I could walk out, but I won't/In my mind I have many rooms' which then leads itself to the line: 'No one's careful all the time/If you lose me I'm going to die'. The music to back this is both texturally and spaciously isolated - piano keys dropping and then rippling out as if through these supposed many rooms of a house Berninger has confined himself to. Percussion too isn't as lively in involvement, but its tones certainly suggest as much passion as do the less obvious stances of guitar strums that merge from time-to-time. But it's the vocals, and more-so the themes, that are the definite attraction here. There clear themes, yet foggy specifics on whether Berninger wants salvation or damnation as the end result, isn't at all off-putting. If anything, it's more intriguing and well-sought because of it. This Is The Last Time, does unfortunately lose a lot of that engagement and momentum from both the music's end as well as the listener's. And while the track does offer some interesting low-key pitches and measures of differing percussion and guitar tones, it definitely doesn't hold itself as highly as a large bulk of the album that's preceded it and its placement.

But for a thirteen track album clocking in just over fifty-five minutes, it's understandable that the potential for problems in ordering tracks - and maintaining a sort of natural or emotive progression - does increase here. And especially for an album, and a band, that do well in conveying a select frequency of emotion and lyrical perspectives, it's a definite talking point that may, unfortunately, shadow aspects of a record such as this. Unfortunately, the album's slight drawbacks go beyond just its hiccups in momentum and progression alike. Graceless is a clear change in gear rhythmically from the tracks that have come before it, but despite the slightly more paced delivery - and further energizing vibes from the instrumentation - musically the track comes off somewhat stiff and unwilling to move away from its (and the band's) roots. Further to that, I don't feel the upscale in tempo and how forward the music coveys itself is matched as well with the select use of tone and dynamics the band present. While it's not, as mentioned, off-putting in terms of its relay and noise-over-clarity decision-making, it's a track that's admittedly less convincing because of its unapologetic decision to remain sonically in the same territory as before.

The slower, stripped-back atmospheres of Slipped, however, are a nice inclusion in contrast because of the band's ability to balance change with their consistency. The piano-led piece remains contently in control of a piece clearly adept to colouring the track in more seedier, desaturated tones. But it doesn't fall victim to such change. There's still the concrete presence of percussion, as are the relaying guitar tones - their texture still providing that soothingly airy feel - but more importantly, Berninger's vocals don't falter or divert from the path. Better yet, it's the very simplicity of it comes to aid his withdrawn, slightly morbid expression of low emotion but a clear, high esteem of confidence and self-belief. 'I keep coming back here, where everything slipped/But I will not spill my guts out.' For a man who runs the risk of having his baritone register, stereotypically, as seeking negativity or running to depression as the only means of expression, the conviction and confidence in his voice definitely gives his less-colourful, less-charming conveying of vocals some worthy reason to be treated as both a measure of awareness as much as a measure of emotion. Even if the lyrics are at times a little startling (bordering on the challenging), this isn't by any means a forceful pushing-away of the music's own offering of creating this rich, melancholic scene present. The twirling passage of electric guitar and clouding bass on I Need My Girl offers one of the finer hooks on the album. While Pink Rabbits' looming fog of sound in the backdrop and sloping piano leads is the definite architect to the track's outdoor atmosphere of both contention yet slight caution melded in there somewhere. And on Hard To Find, the band's gestural open-hand to its listener: its gentle piano chords, the monotonous percussion, the rich guitar strums and Berninger's encompassing flux of perspective between being intimately close and distantly vacating. It's not exactly post-rock in its orchestral and delicate composition, but it's without question a song that aims to be open, even if said honesty isn't exactly positive or comforting on the ear.

It takes some time to get around - or through would be a better word - an album that knows its target themes and sets his eye centrally affixed on it. Trouble Will Find Me is definitely one of The National's more thought-over and refined albums to date. And that refining and set target, while does cement the listener's placement in the scenery, still comes across amazingly well via its richness and, at times, the slightly obscured tension in the atmosphere. But it's Berninger's lyrical themes of relationships, loneliness, anxiety and the ever-looming question of death, that tie all these aspects together with unprecedented levels of confidence. And it's the way the front-man manages to beat away what may be spoken of, as the tropes of baritone-scale subject matter, that makes itself one of the more impressive marks to this album's success. Ideally, if this were a record that had managed to carry through its variances on delivery and outward projection with a similar level of success in its musical direction and use of  integrated instruments, the record would have seen itself flying to the top as a clear favourite for those seeking something with clear-cut decision and cleaner execution of sound. And further to that, the slight deterrence in momentum in parts and how the music transgresses from one phase to the other may not make this album stand up as being one of the finer transitions in sound on an album scale. But in-between moments aside, The National's essence - regardless of how less saturated and livelier its colour may visualize itself to be - as is so graciously explored on this record, will always stand better in contrast to all the other US outfits at present; those, unfortunately, who strive for precedence, than performance.
~Jordan

8.1

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