The National keeps on growing older gracefully with the impeccably executed Trouble Will Find Me, but it might just be that the venerable group has reached the point of no-longer-increasing returns.
The National is one of the rare indie bands that has grown more respected and beloved the bigger it has gotten, as if the true measure of integrity and cred wasn't what you did to make it, but rather what you've done after you've arrived. And that's for good reason: Whether you're talking specifically about the music industry or generally about any walk of life, the National has done things the right way, working hard enough to cause a sweat while on the way up, earning its promotion to the big leagues after actually deserving it, then staying on top by sticking to its founding principles. Indeed, it's not a little ironic that a band that made a name for itself through uncanny sketches of characters losing their grip on the American Dream has come to embody that myth for music fans, going from unhip journeymen to the President's opening act. So even if you don't count yourself among the National's most devoted followers, you still can't help but revere and appreciate what they do and, as importantly, how they've done it.
That might be the best way to account for the National's latest outing Trouble Will Find Me, as an album that's worthy of your admiration for its execution and vision, even if it doesn't quite inspire the same visceral appeal that made the group's unflinchingly intimate, first-person vignettes approachable and absorbing -- it might just be that the National doing what it does well so well has reached the point of no-longer-increasing returns with Trouble Will Find Me. On the one hand, Trouble is a God-in-the-detail effort that features some of the National's most intricate, meticulously crafted work to date, standing out with a deliberate stillness that makes you notice the barely made gestures and the small touches all the better. On the other hand, there's a trade off between an ever increasing level of attention and the workmanlike ambition that sweeps you off your feet when the National is at its best, that intangible quality that has enabled the quintet to create grand-statement anthems that don't begin as grand statements or anthems.
So whereas the National has gotten to the top of its profession thanks to an uncommon knack for taking the undertones of held-back emotions and the most quotidian of scenarios, and turning them into material for arena-rock sing-alongs, Trouble Will Find Me revels more in the small stuff, both musically and narratively, an effort more about depth than expanse. Without any song here that evokes the obvious thrills and chills of, say, "Mr. November" or "Fake Empire" to provide a gateway into the National's glass-half-empty worldview, Trouble's more overcast, contemplative ethos works the opposite way, tamping down the album's most action-packed moments by wrapping moody, atmospheric passages around them. So while Boxer began with a driving dynamism triggered by "Fake Empire" and "Mistaken for Strangers", and "Terrible Love" and "Sorrow" captured the inner turmoil High Violet was getting at, the slow-burning, tongue-biting crises of Trouble's first two tracks "I Should Live in Salt" and "Demons" set a much more measured tone for what follows, expressing either a sense of resignation or reflection, depending on your outlook on things. Gone is the righteous agitation of Boxer and High Violet, as the soothed sound of Trouble makes it feel like the National has come to terms with the small-picture gripes and the big-picture regrets Berninger growls about.
Certainly, you wouldn’t expect anything less from master craftsmen like the National than for them to continue to refine their aesthetic, but there are points on Trouble that are so honed and polished that you wonder if the venerable act hasn't grown a little too comfortable in its existential discomfort. Whereas "Fake Empire" grew majestically and "Terrible Love" bristled with crackling feedback, "I Should Live in Salt" is an oddly slick opening piece, drifting along to Bon Iver-ized soft-rock cadences as swathes of synthesized effects wash over the track. And as the adult-alternative psychodramatics of “Demons” signal, the quiet rage that Berninger barely kept in check on "Afraid of Everyone" has been reined in and repressed, with no musical pressure valve to release his emotions, only shifting, impressionistic synths and guitars accompanying his frowned chorus, "I stayed down with my demons" -- indeed, it's appropriate that Berninger realizes that he can't "rise above" his demons on a song that can't quite lift itself up to the rock 'n' roll transcendence the National is so capable of, even when it wants to. Ably carried out though they may be, neither of the two tablesetting tracks can quite convey the drama they hint at, because, this time around, there isn't as much creative tension between Berninger's worn-out vocals and the desperate push of the National's most stirring and memorable soundscapes. So when Berninger drawls that "I'm going through an awkward phase" on "Demons", he doesn't tug at your heart strings quite as achingly as he has before, backed here by pristine instrumentation that has sanded away the grit and edge that had kept the National getting too midlife-crisis on you.
Maybe that's exactly the careworn vibe that an older, wiser National wants to get across, though, because there are no accidents when it comes to a work as carefully rendered as Trouble is. Whereas the previous two albums may have felt more vital and active than they probably were thanks to artful sequencing, the reverse is the case with Trouble, as the quieter, introspective moments flow almost too seamlessly together and hem in the livelier bursts. So while you might think a punchier number like "Don't Swallow the Cap" would provide some contrast and necessary texture coming on the heels of "Salt" and "Demons", what happens is that it appears more muted than it actually is, its placement after the first two tracks drawing out its ethereal background elements more than its driving beat and brisk tempo. Shaped by Bryan Devendorf's marching drums and the Dessner brothers' impatient guitars, Trouble's most anthem-like offering "Sea of Love" might be more like the kind of rallying cry every National record highlights, but its rawness and unbridled emotion somehow feel mediated and tempered, bracketed by some of the album's slowest, quietest pieces. In particular, "Fireproof", which comes before "Sea of Love", is tellingly titled, its low-profile acoustics staying at a simmer but never boiling over, most apparent when its "needle in the hay" lyric seems to namecheck the Elliott Smith song, but not match its soul-sucking, blue-flame intensity.
Then again, what you're looking for from the National is precisely not what Elliott Smith is good for, and vice versa, since they represent the polar extremes of surviving for the creative process and dying for -- or because of? -- your art. Indeed, when Trouble Will Find Me hits its stride on its second half, the National proves yet again that there's much to be said for being consistent and committed -- or as Berninger nicely puts it, "I am good and I am grounded," on the longingly earnest "I Need My Girl". It takes time, but the stillness settles in to help the details and subtleties shine through, most compellingly on piano-lined ballads "Slipped" and "Pink Rabbits", where there's space for Berninger to show off the full range of his voice, from his craggy, resonant baritone to his flawed but aspiring falsetto, with the Dessners' deft guitar tracings and light string arrangements glimmering behind his vocals. In particular, "Pink Rabbits", with its poignant, dirge-like piano chords, expresses a kind of spirituality that comes with claiming moral victories, as Berninger takes on the perspective of someone who finally chooses hard-won self-awareness over just going through the motions with the perceptive line, "I was television version of a person with a broken heart." And "Hard to Find" is the pitch-perfect coda to Trouble, another shaded composition that's deceptively complex, with delicately wrought layers of plucked guitar, slivers of strings, and glimpses of horns coming together to create something fragile and tender, yet full and complete.
But it's the low-profile anthem "Graceless" that makes the best case for the National growing older gracefully, precisely because it reminds you of a new take on what the group has always done best. So while Berninger croons self-deprecatingly that "I can't get the balance right" on "Don't Swallow the Cap", there's no such problem with "Graceless", as it starts with the slow-but-steady m.o. of Trouble, only to take it somewhere else when the synths kick in and build the song up with a sweep and scale that hearkens back to the National at its grandest, yet sounding like nothing else they've done in how sure and at ease it all comes off. "Graceless" is panoramic but still digs down into the finest-grained details and most submerged feelings, at once dynamic as well as willing to take its time to get where it's going. The payoff here requires some patience, but, then again, that goes with the territory when it comes to this particular band and this particular album.
Whether or not the National makes as strong a connection on Trouble Will Find Me as it has before, you can tell that they're trying to just as hard as ever: The National may have made it, but it's the nobility in keeping on keeping on as if they hadn't that makes them what they are. That might be what Trouble Will Find Me says best about the National, as the sound of a band that's still figuring things out even when it already has.