Trouble Will Find Me has a smooth, cool finish, polished like a stone in the bottom of a river until all the weird stuff has been worn away. Other people may throw around terms like “mature,” “assured” and “restrained,” but I’m leaning towards the idea of chamois-cloth erosion, a process of spitting and rubbing and polishing until you can see your reflection in the surface, until it’s hardly a rock at all anymore.
Not that this is necessarily a complaint. Trouble Will Find Me is a beautiful album, silky enough to wrap its fleeting complications (the 7/4 time signature of “Demons”, for instance) in an enveloping glow. Even Matt Berninger has tamed his baritone bellow to a croon. He has never sounded smoother or sung better, though he’s most compelling when he mumbles half-drunk koans like “I was a television version of a person with a broken heart.”
Trouble Will Find Me has a sleek, integrated air, with little white space and instruments blurred together. The intricate complications of the Dessner brothers have been subsumed into a lulling atmosphere. Can you even hear what the guitars are doing, as a separate distinct thing, anywhere but on “Fireproof”? Only Brian Devendorf, the drummer, remains as irrepressible as ever, though his booming, very National-esque cadence on “Don’t Swallow the Cap” seems to have been doubled with drum machine. There also are a lot of keyboards – piano mainly, but also synthethic tones which melt into a kind of foggy aura, perhaps the big white heaven Berninger continually evokes? You keep thinking, as the phrase ends and some indeterminate guitar or synth sound blares, well, yes, this is where the horns would have come in, this is where the strings would have started, this is where the drum beat would have gotten into a grudge match with the guitar riff and close to blown the song apart. This is where Berninger would have muttered something that sounded like nonsense but stuck with you, late nights, for weeks. This is where things would have gotten too smart, too interesting for the National’s mope-y niche. This is where the itch would have started up that irritated you until it became your favorite part of the song. But it doesn’t happen here or anywhere. The National are wholly themselves with no strings hanging, no knots, no complications. They have gotten so good at hiding behind the ideal of themselves that it doesn’t seem like them anymore.
There’s a doppelganger quality to some of these songs, “Graceless” a replication of “Brainy”, “Fireproof” a dogged invocation of “Racing Like a Pro,” as if the band had settled into a groove so deep that they had to clutch old material to reach the surface. And yet there’s a lovely practiced, polished, certain grace in songs like “Sea of Love” and “Demons”, a slippery, hard-to-quantify charm in the cuts that seem, on first hearing, slight (“Heavenfaced” “I Need My Girl”). This is a band who knows how to swathe its sharpest edges in velvet while still managing a scything cut once in a while. It’s an album you can like quite a lot, even while wishing it were entirely different, and that, finally, is the dilemma I find myself in.
I have made my peace, more or less, with the idea that the National will never make another ballsy, rowdy album like Alligator or another giant romantic, orchestrally ambitious reach of an album like Boxer. Trouble In Mind is way better than High Violet, an album that turned more mawkish and embarrassing every time it spun, but it shares HV’s single-minded pursuit of a particular indie rock aesthetic. Sad, sardonic, mid-tempo, self-reflective, Trouble In Mind is another soundtrack for all of our laughably medium-sized American problems. I used to bristle when people called the National “dad rock,” but how else can you tag guitar-driven music about minor male mid-life crises?
Maybe we should stop seeing it as a negative. Done this well, even dad rock has its charms.
DOWNLOAD: “Demons” “Sea of Love”