A few weeks ago, the National played a concert at the MoMa PS1 in Long Island City, New York. The show was part of an original art project put together by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, who sought to examine “the potential of repetitive performance to produce sculptural presence within sound”—or, to put it more bluntly, to see what would happen if the most sorrowful band in America performed a sorrowful song entitled “Sorrow,” and only “Sorrow,” in a sparse, sorrowful room for six sorrowful hours. Circling around and around like an aural ouroboros, never once stopping to pause, the Brooklyn band played the 2010 High Violet tune about 100 times, all before a rapt crowd of fans willing to pay $15 just to get in the door.
Kjartansson’s experiment in sorrow and sonic repetition was a real spectacle, that’s for sure—but with a truism at its center: Sometimes, the only way to confront our own misery is to have it broadcast before us in an infinite loop, until it simply becomes an extension of the world around us. It becomes background noise, if you will, or an unshakable force. The Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati quintet has been doing this for the entirety of their fourteen-year career, long before they became the latest installation in an art museum. The Americana-tinged palette of the band’s first two records didn’t quite suit the sparse sadness of frontman/lyricist Matt Berninger, but thankfully, they hit their stride with the existential post-punk of 2005’s Alligator and its stellar followups, 2007’s Boxer and, of course, the much-acclaimed, super successful High Violet. Now that they’re rock stars in their own right, will they follow the advice of one Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who famously asked them, “Why don’t you guys just write a pop song?” When you’ve turned Sisyphean struggle into a success story, is there any possibility (or point) of cheering up?
Well, let’s put it this way: On a superficial level, Trouble Will Find Me, the National’s latest full-length LP, probably won’t convert any listeners who’ve written off the band’s music as boring. Save for “Graceless,” the closest thing to a “Bloodbuzz Ohio” this time around, the album’s hooks are buried deep within its echoey recesses, only emerging after repeated listens. Ballads like “Pink Rabbits” and “Fireproof” burn slowly, unfurling beneath thin layers of guitar and piano. Lead single “Demons” recalls David Bowie, contorted through an uncommon 7/4 time signature. As always, the National’s two bands of brothers—twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitars and keyboards, and Scott and Bryan Devendorf on bass and drums—play key roles in shaping the album’s cathartic moments. The cinematic swells of “This Is The Last Time” offer just as much satisfaction as the chameleonic “Heavenfaced,” thanks to the instrumentalists’ careful attention to lines of tension.
Of course, the power’s in the poetics, and Berninger concocts some truly heart-wrenching images this time around. “Oh, don’t tell anyone I’m here,” he croons on “This Is The Last Time,” a dual ode to love and addiction. “I’ve got Tylenol and Beer,” he sings. It’s visceral suburban escapism at its finest—the 21st-century solution to heartbreak, to the girl whose love is “like a swamp.” Even the fond memories have a dark side; the wistful narrator of “I Need My Girl,” longs for the time when his beloved “lost [her] shit and/Drove the car into the garden.” Yep, it’s pretty sorrowful lyrical fare, but when Berninger’s words are propped up against the light-flecked soundscapes—all breathing room and shimmering guitars—they take on a sculptural presence of their own, and even the deepest sadness appears transcendent. And it’s that transcendence that’s at the heart of Trouble Will Find Me—a little bit of optimism, hidden in the darkness.