Six albums in The National are at a crossroads. Alligator and Boxer firmly cemented the path of indie darlings and cult favourites years ago, while their last release High Violet opened up the unlikely possibility of headline slots, stadiums and mainstream glory.
After several listens however, just which path Trouble Will Find Me will lead them down remains unclear. It was hard to imagine them ever ‘selling out’, after all just last weekend (5 May) they soundtracked an art exhibition in New York by playing one song over and over for six hours. But whether this set of songs will inspire a mainstream frenzy is equally hard to predict.
For the initiated though, the key question is does this record live up to its shadow-casting predecessors. And the answer is a resounding yes.
On mood-building opener I Should Live In Salt, Matt Berninger is almost immediately reassuring us that it’s business as usual with the refrain ‘You should know me better than that’.
And, after moody first single Demons, that familiar tempo change and the driving drums that made Lit Up, Brainy and Bloodbuzz Ohio so exciting soon come in again on track three Don’t Swallow The Cap, and again later on the mesmerising Graceless. The contrast of the fervent beat and the droning vocals makes for their most affecting sound, and these two songs are utterly compelling. Similarly, Sea of Love, whose lyrics provide the album title, sees them at their most soaring and mourning in its brief three minutes.
Lyrically there are too many dark and wonderful lines to pick out. On Fireproof, the line ‘Needle in the hay’ and Berninger’s delivery brings to mind Elliott Smith, while on Humiliation he croons ‘She wore blue velvet’. By closer Hard To Find, he wearily quotes the Violent Femmes, not an obvious National influence.
With music always becoming more fractured and disposable, this is an album in every sense of the word. While its dark, melancholy nature may limit its mainstream appeal, this album simply provides further evidence that there are few better bands than The National in the world right now.