If there’s a universal message in the music of The National, it’s that it’s OK to not be OK. Elegantly miserable, singer Matt Berninger is at again on “Trouble Will Find Me,” the group’s sixth album and first since 2010’s wildly successful “High Violet,” telling us, seemingly with a straight face, “I am not my rosy self.”
Sometimes, the delivery is as important as the content, and The National are a prime example. Left in the hands of a less seasoned crew, sentiments like “It takes a lot of pain to pick me up” and “I won’t need any help to be lonely when you leave me” could be whiny and shallow pop-punk fodder. But when delivered in Berninger’s lived-in tenor and buttressed by the simply sophisticated music of Aaron Dessner, (guitar, bass, piano), Bryce Dessner (guitar), Scott Devendorf (bass, guitar) and Bryan Devendorf (drums), it is something entirely different, something of depth and richness.
The album opens in nondescript fashion with “I Should Live In Salt,” with acoustic guitar and electric guitar swells, Berninger singing, “You should know me better than that.” “Demons” is slow and downcast as well, hewing closely to The National template but nonetheless a strong track, while “Don’t Swallow The Cap” is built on a deceptively driving beat. It’s a confessional song, with Berninger admitting, “I only have two emotions/ Careful fear and dead devotion/ I can’t get the balance right.”
“Fireproof,” too, doesn’t break the mold, but it’s a study in simple brilliance. Berninger sings of a stonehearted woman named Jennifer. “You’re fireproof/ Nothing breaks your heart,” he sings, offering a backhanded compliment over lightly shuffled drums and interlocking guitars. But in the end, he desires to be as emotionally indifferent as her: “I wish I was that way.”
“Sea Of Love,” with its twitchy guitar, is a bundle of nerves. “If I stay here/ Trouble will find me,” an uneasy Berninger sings while the rhythm section hammers away. “If I stay here/ I’ll never leave.”
Following the piano ballad “Heavenfaced,” “This Is The Last Time” is an insistent yet ethereal track, Berninger again mentioning “trouble” but this time he’s resigned and mournful, not anxious. “It takes a lot of pain to pick me up,” he vocalizes, injecting a slight dash of ironic humor into the moribund proceedings.
More subtle humor – the aforementioned “rosy self” – is present in “Graceless,” a musically upbeat track, while “Slipped” brings things back to a simmer. “Slipped” is mostly atmospherics, a deliberate tambourine and vocals. Berninger tells the shadowy tale of a trip to the South, “back where everything slipped.” We don’t know if it’s where a loved one died, or where a love ended, but he does open enough to say, “I don’t want you to grieve/ But I want you to sympathize.”
“I Need My Girl” continues the confessional melancholy, equal parts love song and desperate plea over a knotty and warm electric guitar figure. “Humiliation” is based on a simple, repetitive Arcade Fire-like rhythm and drone, but about four minutes in, a shift in key and a jazzy guitar line have a dramatic effect.
The album closes with the gently rolling “Pink Rabbits” and “Hard To Find,” another introspective ballad. Orchestral accompaniment and glockenspiel give the latter an otherworldly Sigur Ros feel.
To say that “Trouble Will Find Me” is an improvement on “High Violet” would not only be an exaggeration, but an insult to “High Violet”; there’s nothing here as immediately tuneful as “Bloodbuzz Ohio” or as emotionally devastating as “Afraid Of Everyone.” The best thing about the new album from The National is that there’s a new album from The National. And that’s not something to be taken for granted.