A YouTube search for ”Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” the towering closing track from the National’s critically adored 2010 album, High Violet, yields a clip of the song being played over a continuous shot of waves gently crashing on a beach. It’s an apt metaphor; the Brooklyn quintet are all lovely tranquility on the surface, masking the churn roiling underneath.
In the past, their best moments found them cranking out jangly slabs of dynamism like the Obama-adopted anthem ”Mr. November” (from 2005’s Alligator), a tactic mostly abandoned now in favor of a more measured approach. Much of Trouble Will Find Me liberally doles out pathos but stingily denies release, focusing instead on a meticulously constructed swirl of guitars, spooky strings, and humming organs and brass. The cloudy arrangements and surgical precision make the National sound less like a band than an element of a larger art project led by golden-voiced frontman Matt Berninger and twin co-producers Aaron and Bryce Dessner.
The result is a painstakingly composed batch of tracks that struggle to break free from their gorgeously constructed prisons. ”Fireproof” opens with a deftly plucked bit of acoustic guitar drama but never quite finds a second gear, even as the strings slink into the background. The uptempo jitter embedded in ”Don’t Swallow the Cap” teases a release that never arrives, and album closer ”Hard to Find” slouches when it should swell. Clearly, the National have found something profound in repetition (consider a recent New York City museum installation that found them playing the same song for six hours). But too often, the songs on Trouble Will Find Me seem to circle back on themselves simply for the sake of doing so.
It’s a shame, because they’re a band capable of phenomenal feats of liberating bombast when they get it right — and when they do, it feels like the best kind of punch to the solar plexus. Berninger has a gift for giving otherwise banal phrases spiritual heft, as on the awesome ”Graceless,” with its repeated refrain ”Grace/Put the flowers you found in a vase.” His aching baritone burrows deep, finding its target without the struggle of actual trying to sound capital-I Important. B
”Graceless”; ”I Should Live in Salt”