ReviewsThe National – Trouble Will Find Me

By | posted on 11th April 2014

The trouble with The National is that they are so well-defined, so clearly themselves, so consistent that you could point a newcomer to a couple of songs - a slow one, a fast one - and it would give them everything they need to know. You could start from nothing, pick any album (except, possibly the eponymous debut), play it through, and you’d have an idea what to expect from all the other albums.

So what’s unusual about that? How many bands are in a constant state of reinvention? Well, maybe nothing, and not many, in that order. But it reveals an issue at the heart of Trouble Will Find Me: it is - let me be very clear about this - an outstanding collection of songs. Or, rather, a collection of outstanding songs. It’s just that about two thirds through you start to lose a sense of place, of perspective: what have I been listening to, and what is the body around which these songs orbit?

I don’t know what it is, but no matter how many times I listen to this album, I don’t ever feel like I can put my arms round it and clasp my hands on the other side. It’s like transporting laundry: something always slips to the floor. Each time I get to the end, and ‘Hard to Find’s sign-off - “They can all just kiss off into the air” - I find myself wondering what form of short-term memory loss I must be suffering that makes so much of the last hour so hard to recall.

"Demons" doesn’t take much to recall, with its unusual 7/4 rhythm and Matt Berninger’s wry lyric (“I am secretly in love with everyone that I grew up with”), and status as lead single for the album. "Sea of Love", another single, provides trademark Devendorf propulsion into a sudden fade and the album’s title. "Sea of Love" makes way for "Heavenfaced", one of The National’s most direct, and sweetest (by their standards, anyway) songs - a song in which life suddenly doesn’t seem so bleak. “I could walk out but I won’t”, and “we’ll all arrive in heaven alive”, Berninger tells us, and perhaps he’s not just hung up on a neat rhyme.

"I Should Live in Salt", written about Berninger’s brother, has its repeated refrain “you should know me better than that”, and sharp guitar thrusts to make it memorable. And it’s the opening track, so it does have an advantage there.

Scattered among these, though, are songs that are like Saturday morning crossword clues or difficult algebra - I can’t get a handle on them, but with a reminder, a hint or even an explanation, they make sense with the clarity of hindsight. "Slipped", with its deep self-pity (“I won't need any help to be lonely when you leave me”), "Fireproof", "This is the Last Time". Perhaps there’s just too much greatness on show here, perhaps the highlights just obliterate what came before. I can listen to each of them, love each of them, but when I come to a track like "Pink Rabbits", everything before is no more than a forgotten historical footnote. It’s the most tragic drinking song, no clarity of hindsight here:

You didn't see me I was falling apart
I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in a park
You didn't see me I was falling apart
I was a television version of a person with a broken heart

In its third movement, the clocks stop, it’s that gorgeous:

You said it would be painless
The needle in the doll
You said it would be painless
It wasn't that at all

And now I should write a pithy kicker to conclude this review, to conclude this series of reviews. But I just can’t get past those pink rabbits. If, for some reason, The National call it quits today, this week, now, at least I’ll always have the pink rabbits.