It’s been three long years since the unqualified success of The National’‘s High Violet, one of the standout albums of 2010. Their latest release is Trouble Will Find Me, and details the ongoing, seemingly never-ending sorrows of Matt Berninger, songwriter extraordinaire, vocalist deep, dark and mysterioso, in his role as unabashed Master Of Misery. On first listen the album is a tough slog for those unaccustomed to relentless despair, so relentless in fact that he renders his chief influence, Leonard Cohen, as a purveyor of exuberance. On further hearings the new recording serves up slices of hope in a frequently dazzling sonic texture that becomes surprisingly endearing. Though not cheerful, not for a moment. If you want cheerful, go find Bruno Mars.
“There’s comfort in melancholy”, sang the High Priestess of Introspection, one Joni Mitchell, in the title track of her underrated masterwork Hejira back in the mid 1970s, and Matt has adopted her credo perhaps unknowingly, though it is telling that Mitchell was an erstwhile lover of Cohen and both were noted for their shall we say, somewhat less than sunny outlook on life. Their redeeming quality, however, was that both were more than given to celebrating pleasures of the flesh and the dance of passion intertwined with ecstasy. I sometimes wondered with recent albums when listening to The National whether such experiences have passed Matt by entirely since their very early and very wonderful album with the great title Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers. Then on this new recording he brings forth the absolute delight of “I Need My Girl”, which is both a subtle and intoxicating way of telling us he’s never going to reveal himself entirely and that there are shades and depths to the man that make his work absolutely essential listening.
The album begins strongly with “I Should Live In Salt”, an intriguing title supported by a terrific melody and beautiful orchestration that frankly surpasses, even overwhelms, the somewhat pedestrian lyrics that repeat themselves too often and revel in domestic unease. The following tune “My Demons” is one of Berninger’s best vocal tracks ever with the insistent lyric line ” I stay down with my demons” contrasting with flying buzzards in the sky and alligators abounding – compelling images that demonstrate Berninger really can write far beyond his usual straight confessional stuff. “Fireproof” provides some delicate and moving guitar work while Matt pours out his heart over a bitter heartbreak with Jennifer, who is also mentioned in later songs on the album: she’s apparently the one who has done him in. In fact it occurred to me that Trouble Will Find Me concerns itself entirely with this Jennifer and the emotional devastation she has wreaked upon the cool and elusive Berninger.
“Sea Of Love” is definitely a Sea of Heartbreak, and its lyrics provide the album’s title; it’s an apologia for that end of relationship awkwardness. As for “This Is The Last Time”, while its intentions are worthy, wordings such as “your love is such a swamp” don’t measure up to the band’s strong musical performance on this number. However all is redeemed with “Graceless” when against a driving beat Berninger sings “I don’t have a sunny side to face this, you can’t imagine how I hate this”.
His best lyric of all comes with “I Need My Girl”, with “I know I was a forty-five percenter then”, a look back at what could have and should have been, with a little more emotional courage. Backed by a haunting guitar, this track is worth the price of admission.
The album closes with “Hard To Find”, the strongest composition on the record, with some of the most tender singing ever from a regretful and searching Berninger, dealing with ineffable sadness over romantic loss. Jennifer, again, I suspect. The truly lovely keyboard and guitar backings provide a haunting conclusion to one of the saddest, most beautiful albums since John Martyn’s Grace and Danger, which chronicled the breakup of Martyn’s marriage.
The band ? – one of the strongest in American rock music. Twins Aaron (guitar and keyboard) and Bryce Dessner (guitar) and Scott (bass) and Bryan Devendorf (drums) simply have no competition, as an organic and integrated band, on the American scene today. And if Berninger ever strays, even occasionally, from the pervasive streak of melancholic despair that has come to be his trademark, there’s no telling how deeply they will dominate popular music.
Brian Miller is the Publisher and co-Editor of Vivascene. A former record store owner and business writer, his interests range from vinyl records and high performance audio to design, photography, and succinct writing. Email: email@example.com