In Lizzy Goodman’s excellent book, Meet Me in the Bathroom, The National are cast as lesser characters in the NY/Brooklyn scene of the early 2000s. While The Stokes, Interpol and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs hit the ground running, The National took longer to find their footing. But over time, they have risen above their more popular colleagues from that era to become critical darlings and festival favourites. Back in September the National released their seventh studio album, Sleep Well Beast. Their last album, 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, felt like the end of a trilogy which would make this a new beginning or at least a transitional one.
Second track “Day I Die” has a guitar line that sounds air lifted from The Kings of Leon with an instantly classic chorus. The sung/talked “Walk It Back” has an electronic blip running through it and first single “the System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” replaces the blip with a squiggly guitar line. “Empire Line” starts a string of classic National songs that runs through the great “Guilty Party” and ends with “Carin at the Liquor Store”, that features their usual trick of sounding both melancholy and uplifting at the same time.
Unlike the past few releases, Sleep Well Beast has a few tracks that when listened to individually are a bit dull (“Born to Beg” and “Turtleneck”) but when run right through, are less noticeably cast as missteps. Where the last three albums felt more concise, Sleep Well Beast meanders here and there – a guitar squall here, an electronic flourish there, a few tracks that go on for a few minutes longer than they need to, etc. However, there are enough good moments on every track that makes this another great album from The National.
Just before the release of the latest offering from The National, Stereogum.com printed a post listing the band’s top ten songs up to that point. Such is the devotion of the band’s followers that the list generated nearly 200 responses with fans listing virtually every song the band has released since 2005’s Alligator for consideration. That album was the start of the band’s climb into mainstream consciousness that has continued to rise with each successive release and reached critical mass with 2010’s acclaimed High Violet. Three years later the band has returned with their sixth release, Trouble Will Find Me.
The National decamped to Rhinebeck, New York in 2012 to begin sessions on the album that would prove to be a lot less fractious than the ones that famously plagued High Violet. One of the band’s fortes is the ability to create sing along anthems out of songs that contain the most dour of lyrics. First single “Demons” is a perfect example of this skill. “Every day I start out so great then the great light dims” and “when I walk into a room I do not light it up… fuck” are hardly thoughts that one wants to be heard whispering never mind shouting, however, as the music swells beneath Matt Berninger’s deep baritone it is hard not to get swept away on this new ship of woes.
While the lush production of brother’s Aaron and Bryce Dressner battle with Berninger’s lyrics for attention, one of the secret weapons of The National is the inventive drumming of Bryan Devendorf who provides a kick to both “This is the Last Time” and especially on mid album highlight “Graceless”. Devendorf manages to shine and add texture while Bessinger tells listeners “God loves everybody, don’t remind me”. “Slipped” and “I Need My Girl” follow but while both are good tracks in their own right (especially the former), they somehow feel like a letdown after the build-up in “Graceless”.
Piano driven, “Pink Rabbits” is reminiscent of Boxer’s “Slow Show” in that they are both quietly two of the best the band has ever written. “You didn’t see me, I was falling apart, I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park… I was a television version of a person with a broken heart”. Trust me when I say, if you need a song to have on in the background while you toss out old letters and photographs of those not in your life anymore, this is the one.
Trouble Will Find Me is somewhat hampered by sequencing but still shows off virtually all of the band’s many strengths. Berninger’s lyrics are always downcast but contain enough humour to never be depressing and the musicianship of the Dessner and Devendorf brothers continue to outpace most of their peers. Somehow Trouble Will Find Me sounds elegantly more mature than past releases which for a band like The National is saying something.
Review also found at UMFM.com