The National has established a niche in the modern indie scene for brooding rock and have basically perfected how to turn grief into art. When “I Should Live in Salt” begins the Brooklyn outfit’s new album, Trouble Will Find Me, with its off-kilter, tipsy even, rhythm pattern, we instantly know they have produced more of the same. Even the subject matter remains grief-stricken and apologetic: “Salt” is a song about how lead singer Matt Berninger never really had a strong relationship with his younger brother, the subject of a recent documentary. The new album is evenly balanced from start to finish, with The National sounding like The National (“Fireproof” plays like an updated “Racing Like a Pro,” and “Sea of Love” is one of the best songs the band has released) and on occasion, taking cues from friends (“Don’t Swallow the Cap” is Arcade Fire with Berninger at the songwriting and vocal helm). The album’s first single, “Demons,” also helps to set the tone, as Berninger sings, “Do my crying underwater,/I can’t get down any farther.”
One part of the band’s aesthetic that separates them from the rest of the music community is the sadness that pervades every song. Berninger mumbles his sorrows, almost as if he were confessing, only to apologize with a cathartic, sonic explosion. The tone of their songs is sad, but the way they paint the dark landscape encourages the listener to become emotionally stronger through listening to them, rather than continually sulking. The National reflect upon a seemingly dark world but then combat and overcome that hopelessness with powerful music. That’s what makes the band’s live show so electric — Berninger’s passion and energy are obviously derived from the anxiety embedded in the stories he shares through song. They’re like Joy Division with more intricacy, or The Smiths, but not as demeaningly sarcastic.
Their uniqueness reaches further than the gloomy nature of the band’s sound that is known to make you want to hole up in an empty room with a glass of white wine (Berninger’s favorite on-stage drink) and cry. Matt Berninger has a grumbling baritone, Aaron and Bryce Dessner are skilled composers and producers and Scott and Bryan Devendorf make up one of the strongest and most innovative rhythm sections in modern music. They’ve written soundtracks for video games, and recently they even performed a track of theirs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for six straight hours. The band is no stranger to politics either – they lent the title of one of their more popular songs, “Mr. November,” to the Obama Presidential campaign. “I'd love to think that the president plays us somewhere around the White House when he's drinking or depressed,” Berninger quipped in an interview with Vice. No matter what project the band undertakes, their depressed tone is persistent.
Of course, a dilemma always arises in music when bands must choose to either keep producing the same style of music or branch out into a new musical direction. A criticism of The National has always been that they have released more than a decade’s worth of music, and all of it is similarly somber to the point of boredom. We’re just so used to bands maturing over the course of their career that when a band like The National enters the scene already so sophisticated and dedicated to what they want their music to continually sound like, it can be off-putting. And though it’s true that, at first, albums like Trouble Will Find Me seem to suffer from tracks that sound all too similar, it takes a few listens to notice all of the peculiarities and intricacies hidden in the songs: the 3/4 rhythm and beautifully-timed horn flairs in “Fake Empire,” or the piano scattered throughout Boxer, or even the lyrical genius throughout Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. I know it sounds cliché to say “the little things matter,” but for The National, a couple lines of lyrics or the addition of lingering strings can really change one’s perception of a particular track.
The band is just remarkable with this consistency. Berninger even references this in “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” when he sings, “I have only two emotions / careful fear and dead devotion,” the two Berninger continues to tap with his lyrics album after album. While consistency can be dangerous for a band, The National finds ways to keep things interesting, whether it’s with innovative rhythms and intertwining guitar riffs or a healthy dose of fun here and there. With this newfound popularity, new listeners have a great gateway into the rest of the band’s catalog with Trouble Will Find Me.