May 15, 2013

Album Review: The National's Trouble Will Find Me

Sitting atop NYC's modern indie rock echelon must be a cozy spot to find yourself in, and while bands like Animal Collective, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio have all done a phenomenal job over the past decade at evolving their sound with each new effort in their own respective ways, the National have somehow gotten away scot-free without deviating far from the formula of broody and brainy suit-and-tie sophisticate rock that made them the gentrified Williamsburg scene's darlings under 2004's underrated Alligator and 2007's breakthrough Boxer. High Violet, while critically adored and lauded as the National's "biggest" sounding album to date, never registered with me as an outstanding addition to their catalog. It was angrier in tone, I'll give them that, and while its opener "Terrible Love" painted a brilliantly loud and ugly side of the richly composed quintet, the remainder of the LP gave me little reason to believe Matt Berninger and the Dessner twins were interested in stepping out of themselves or exploring a different potential to their strongholds of darkened indie rock beautified with baroque flourishes made captivating by a trembled and manic frontman's unintentionally sexy baritone. Their latest effort, Trouble Will Find Me, confirms these suspicions for better or for worse.

There’s an obvious line being drawn back to Alligator’s gentle rumble and Boxer beautifully dismal eloquence at Trouble Will Find Me’s foundation, and while this may come as a surprise to some, it’s where the cracks emerge during the listen. Unlike Vampire Weekend, another band of sonically stabilized BK indie stalwarts who just gave us a high-def reconstruction of their brand of indie pop, the National’s style has become redundantly content in two-dimensional form, conjuring up flashbacks of Interpol’s fall from grace as festival juggernauts to past-their-prime NYC millennials who have struggled in recent years to reach anything resembling an exciting peak from their pre-Our Love to Admire collapse. Recycling the Dessners' familiar compositions and lyrically reading off Berninger's predictable menu of witty self-deprecation and sad humor yields an indifferent shoulder shrug when it's put in front of you for the fourth time in a row since their mid-2000s breakthrough. Wanting to hear the quick-footed tremolo of Boxer is easiest when dusting off that album's jewel case and throwing the ol' compact disc into the stereo instead of reliving it in lossy format on “Don't Swallow the Cap,” “Heavenfaced,” "Graceless" or “Slipped.” The small-spaced American gothic spin on Springsteen remains the timeless benchmark when experienced through Alligator’s beer goggles rather than Trouble…’s sobered up spin-offs “Fireproof,” “This Is the Last Time” or “I Need My Girl.” These songs wear the same devilishly handsome designer suits that preach to the National's choir of blindly loyal high-brow listeners who'd much rather more of the same as long as they're of equal quality instead of risking change that might see them falter, and that takes half the adventure out of bothering to make a new album.

The next logical step for the National would have been to move forward with expanded ideas they explored on High Violet by magnifying them into a full-blown arena-packing experience that could have put them on the same level as their top-selling indie rock colleagues Arcade Fire or Phoenix. "Sea of Love" is the only big screen moment on Trouble Will Find Me that suggests what could have been with its bold criss-crossing outro that is confidently prepared to blow away the Barclays Center more so than say, the drowsy closer "Hard to Find." With all due respect to the premise of being an artist and not adhering to the general consensus of industry expectations, it's disadvantageous at this point in the National's career to retreat their way back into mid-sized theatres which they've completely outgrown, especially when they have the proven talent and fan base to become next year's newly annointed major festival headliners. Unfortunately, Trouble Will Find Me is exactly the type of album you could have predicted the National would make (again) two years ago that succeeds in keeping their win record flawless, and yet, does not offer anything new that's worth much of an applause.

The National's Trouble Will Find Me will be released May 21, 2013 on 4AD Records.

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