The National just released Trouble Will Find Me, their sixth album. I gave it a B, because it is what I consider the very definition of a B-level album: It’s an exceptionally well made album by a now-veteran band, but it does not really waver from the formula set up on previous albums. Essentially, it’s more of the same, so if you like albums made by the National, then you’ll certainly like this new album by the National.
I’ve held fast to that grade, though the more I think about my reasoning, the more I have begun to question it. It has forced a core question to the forefront: What do we expect from our favorite artists?
In the case of the National, it’s deeply unfair that I am essentially punishing them for being excellent. Their only crime is having revealed their particular brand of excellence already. Since the release of their breakthrough 2005 album Alligator, they have made only minor tweaks to their fully-formed aesthetic. Make no mistake: It’s an impressive sound, full of gorgeous swells and intricately constructed instrumentation. Though there are a lot more horns and strings and glockenspiels on their more recent releases, the only real shift in sound has come from frontman Matt Berninger, who has focused more on baritone brooding than on the adenoidal shouting heard on tracks like “Abel” or “Mr. November.”
On balance, their best album is probably 2007’s The Boxer, which hit upon that magical combination of ruggedness and grace. The albums after that (2010’s High Violet and the just-released Trouble Will Find Me) have essentially been extremely well-executed clones of The Boxer. It’s wonderful music, but we’ve heard it before.
Is that a fair criticism, though? Shouldn’t artists be rewarded for honing and perfecting their craft, which the National have certainly been doing for the past half-decade?
And it’s not like other artists are rewarded for throwing out the baby with the bathwater and reinventing themselves. Daft Punk also has a new album out this week, their first proper collection since 2005’s Human After All. While Random Access Memories has received plenty of positive reviews from critics (including EW’s Melissa Maerz, who gave the album a solid A), the primary voices of dissent seem to be disliking it because it doesn’t sound like a Daft Punk album. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo (who within the Daft Punk mythology may or may not be robots) carved out a clear path with their first three albums, blending together gaseous European techno with blasts of classic R&B, robo-funk, English big beat, and the fundamental elements of dubstep. But Random Access Memories is a total time machine, crafted with vintage synthesizers and relying on the spryness of late ’70s disco. It’s vaguely shocking that “Get Lucky” and “One More Time” were made by the same duo.
Again, which is the more just approach? Applauding Daft Punk for expanding their horizons and experimenting, or chiding them for straying too far from what we expect of them?
What do you think? Is it fair to demand that a great, steady band like the National do something different? How does Daft Punk’s shift in approach play into your opinion of Random Access Memories? And what do you look for when one of your favorite acts is releasing a new album? Let it play out in the comments.
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