In Lizzy Goodman’s excellent book, Meet Me In the Bathroom that focuses on the New York rock scene of the early oughts, tellingly The National appear in a chapter entitled, “The Uncool Kids”. However, over the years they would become one of the biggest bands to emerge from that burgeoning scene having now released 8 studio albums. Back in 2001 though, they would release their self-titled debut on Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s Brassland Record label.
Featuring drummer Bryan Devendorf on the cover, this is before Bryce had officially joined the band but plays on several tracks. “Cold Girl Fever” is a catchy acoustic led track with a squiggly synth and a drum that kicks things up before the end. “Beautiful Head” and “The Perfect” are solid college rock songs. Elsewhere the album strays into country influenced sounds on the upbeat “Pay For Me” with a twang in Matt Berninger’s vocals. The laid back “Bitters & Absolut” has fine backing vocals courtesy of Nathalie Jonas and a lovely piano towards the end. The National’s debut is a well-played album with Berninger still trying to find his voice that would eventually lift the band to far greater heights.
There is a lot to unpack when reviewing the new album from The National. I Am Easy To Find is the follow-up to 2017’s Sleep Well Beast and it’s music is featured in short movie from director Mike Mills with several female singers appearing on the album such as Lisa Hannigan and Sharon Van Etten. Mills is named as a co-producer on the album became a de-facto member of the group during the recording.
First single “You Had Your Soul With You” leads off the album with disorienting drums and electronics before the noise falls away with Gail Anne Dorsey singing, “you have no idea how hard I died when you left”. “Quiet Light” is a more typical track from the band with just Matt Berninger singing and it’s added orchestration. “Oblivions” deals with the trials and tribulations of marriage with Mina Tindle offering a counterpoint to Berninger’s ruminations. Fourth single “Rylan” has been kicking around for a few years and is another classic sounding track from the band that adds electronics and is (nearly) anthemic.
It is telling that the title track is one of the best songs but features a lyric Guided By Voices which is the part that sticks though Berninger’s low rumbling voice beneath Kate Stables’ singing “I’m still waiting for you every night with ticker tape” is great. At 64 minutes, there are several moments that are professionally done yet just flat out dull. It was recently noted on Steven Hyden’s twitter feed from fans that several of the new songs sound amazing live. It is easy to imagine tracks like “Where Is Her Head” would light up a crowd. At times the electronic bits and orchestration of Aaron and Bryce Dessner blunts the excitement and takes away from the excellent drumming of Bryan Devendorf. While the music is mostly quite beautiful, too often it blends into the background.
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.