With much of modern popular music, there’s a tendency to thing of good songs or albums as being immediate in their appeal. Additional listens may reveal deeper, richer aspects to a song’s meaning or construction, but an inherently good song is perceivable from the get-go. It’s in response to this mindset that bands like The National exist: to remind us of what genuine revelation is, of what it truly means for a song to grow on you, and to really highlight how irritating so many of those “good” pop songs can get after two dozen radio broadcasts.
‘Trouble Will Find Me” isn’t The National’s most accessible album to date, though I’m not sure that’s a label one could ascribe to any entry of their discography. I’m personally biased towards my first encounter with them, 2007’s ‘The Boxer,’ if only because the enduring strength of songs like “Mistaken for Strangers” and “Green Gloves” causes me to overlook how long it took for those tracks and others to win me over. If you go into ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ actively searching for the various hooks and lyrical compositions that make an album memorable and worthy of repeated plays, then you’re apt to come away disappointed. Those hooks are definitely there, but the full measure of their beauty and resonance simply can’t be perceived from a single glance. This is great music you have to work for, and if you’re not willing to put in the time, you simply won’t get anything from it.
Take the opening track, “I Should Live in Salt.” At first fairly standard sounding song for The National, somewhere between the third and fourth listen, the track came alive for me with a majesty that’s rather astounding. Perhaps the lyrics contributed to this slow burn: singer Matt Beninger’s refrain of “You should know me better than that” can seem a little cloying to those fancy themselves music lovers of discriminating taste. Ultimately, however, said repetition resonates to the theme of the song, of the painful yet inevitable factors that contribute to a relationship’s dissolution. It’s an emotional gut-check that can seem a rather daunting way to start an album; I actually have to fully commit my attention to it, as the track is sure to wrestle it away from any other tasks I may have been engaging with.
‘Trouble Will Find Me’ carries on for a time in a likewise masterful manner: the first five songs include the lead singles “Demons” and “Sea of Love,” both slightly more accessible yet every bit as powerful as the intro, as well as “Don’t Swallow the Cap” and “Fireproof.” With “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” The National may have found their catchiest song in recent years, though “Graceless” gives it a run for its money; on “Fireproof,” meanwhile, we see the resonance of repetition from “I Should Live in Salt” rearing its head once again. This early bundle of tracks sets a high watermark for ‘Trouble Will Find Me,’ one that the likes of “Heavenfaced,” “This is the Last Time” and even the final song, “Hard to Find,” struggle to measure up against.
Not to dwell on these momentary shortcomings, however, let’s instead turn our attention to another of The National’s strengths. Alongside the rewarding depth to their songs and Berninger’s dulcet baritone, the use of rhyme on this album is strikingly effective. The capacity to rhyme a line is taken for granted these days, either being reduced to the most puerile of pop insipidness or being ignored outright. Not only do The National respect rhyme, the rhymes they construct are frequently inspired. Again, “Don’t Swallow the Cap” stands out as a rare instance where musical name-dropping doesn’t distract or feel stilted: “I’m not alone / I’ll never be / And to the bone / I’m evergreen / And if you want / to see me cry / play ‘Let It Be’ / or ‘Nevermind’.” Elsewhere, like on “I Need My Girl,” the rhymes convey a poignant sense of vulnerability and loss: “I am good and I am grounded / Davy says that I look taller / But I can’t get my head around it / I keep feeling smaller and smaller.”
‘Trouble Will Find Me’ does not find The National stepping too far out beyond the sound they’ve cultivated over the past three albums. For fans, this should come as a welcome sign that “more of the same” isn’t necessarily bad. For newcomers, let this record then serve as an apt point of reference for the group as a whole. One and all would do well to give the band a look in light of this new release; just be sure to stick around long enough for the real goodness to kick in.