It’s interesting that Matt Berninger sings “If you want to see me cry / Play Let It Be or Nevermind” on the chorus of “Don’t Swallow the Cap” because he admits that even the most overproduced (the former)* or angst-y (the latter) of albums are better able to make a grown man cry than Trouble Will Find Me.
Now, while I do use allmusic, I rarely use it for the “artist moods” feature, even if it is uniquely theirs. More than the constant genre disputes, it feels sillier to try and pigeonhole a song–let alone an album or an artist–to a handful of moods. Regardless, I’ll use this feature to highlight a point: the Beatles have 40 different artist moods and Nirvana have an impressive and whopping 42. The National, on the other hand, have a meager 19. But that’s counting their entire discography; they haven’t been “Brash” or “Rousing” since a few select moments in Alligator and a single song from Boxer (“Abel,” “Mr. November,” and “Mistaken for Strangers,” and for the record, all greatsongs), both released more than half a decade ago. Furthermore, I don’t recall them ever being “Bright.” Now, I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation to number of “artist moods” as dictated by allmusic and how good a band is, but according to these three case studies, there probably is. The problem here though, is that the National have shown a complete disinterest in being anything other than one-mood; such that they had decided to keep a better version of one of their songs (“Terrible Love”) off the proper album because it was way too rocking to fit with the depressing doodad of an album.
Trouble Will Find Me? Well, it’s basically the sequel to High Violet, and if movie sequels tell you anything, it’s that you should lower your expectations before watching it because it won’t be nearly as good (and for every The Dark Knight you give me, there’s around a hundred counterarguments). There’s a reason why most movies nowadays are either remakes or sequels; it’s because original ideas are hard to come by. Now, I don’t need my bands to progress, but it’s so much more exciting if they do and do it right – see Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City – but the National have received so much critical validation that there’s no reason to move on. For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed High Violet, but Trouble Will Find Me does not hold up in comparison. At first, I thought it might be a fault of mine, that somehow, I had changed in the past three years, but upon closer inspection, it’s a fault of the band’s.
Laziness is the most apt mood to describe Trouble Will Find Me. Take a song like “Runaway” or “England” from High Violet and count the hooks (there’s more than five in both). Now go to any of these songs and do the same. “Demons” has a single hook repeated to form a chorus (“I stayed down / With my demons”). “Fireproof” is more or less the same. Just hook-wise, the songs that precede them are so much better; “I Should Live in Salt” has three of them; “You should know me better than that,” “I should leave it alone but you’re not right” and “I should live in salt for leaving you behind.” Similarly, “Don’t Swallow the Cap” has got plenty, and that’s not even talking about the other merits that these songs possess. The hooks in “I Should Live in Salt” are about as melodic as Berninger gets on the album such that I forgive the needless Michael Stipe imitation. Meanwhile, there’s brief bursts of strings (ie. the 1:15 mark) to pay attention to in “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” not to mention extremely tight drumming, though I wish the backing vocals (here and elsewhere) did more than just vaguely harmonize – someone should teach these cats about the wonderful power of counterpoint (also, getting a girl to help out with vocal duties is going to do wonders to distinguish you from your betters). The rest of the album suffers the same problems: “Heavenfaced” is basically what “England” would sound like if it didn’t run on major thirds intervals and ran on single notes instead (and again, with less hooks); that riff had no business going on for over 4 minutes. Meanwhile “I Need My Girl” steals the riff wholesale from Sufjan Stevens’ last section of “Impossible Soul” (and everyone knows you guys listen to Sufjan Stevens ever since he lent a hand on Boxer).
Furthermore, do Matt Berninger’s lyrics do anything for anyone? They’re placeholders, that’s what those are. Vague musings about what’s and whatever’s in a deep voice to give the impression that what he’s singing about is deep. “I should live in salt for leaving you behind?” “I should live off salt for leaving you behind” would’ve been much more tangible, no? Meanwhile, I’m aware that sewer alligators were a myth because America doesn’t have the natural habitat that a Loch Ness Monster or a Sasquatch or its Northern relative the Yeti require, but when Berninger drops a line like “Alligators in the sewers,” it only reminds me of a) how I’ve heard it on a Radiohead b-side (“Baby alligators in the sewers grow up so fast” on “Fog”) and b) how I’ve heard an animal imagery done better on High Violet (“I was carried to Ohio on a swarm of bees”) which was also so much more melodic. Finally, when Berninger drops the oft-talked about line in “Demons,” “When I walk into a room / I do not light it up / Fuck,” it reads more attention-seeking than it does powerful. It also reminds me of a time that Berninger walked down the street in a rare, delicious narcissism. And then thinking of “All the Wine” makes me think of the infinitely better album it belongs to. Then I stop listening to Trouble Will Find Me and throw that one on. Remember a line like “It’s a common fetish for a doting man / To ballerina on the coffee table cock in hand?” Whatever happened to those days?
All these songs blend together, and after multiple listens, I can barely tell them apart. At first, I thought it was a fault of mine, that somehow, my auditory cortex’s neurons were operating at a slower rate, but upon closer inspection, it’s a fault of the band’s.
*I sincerely doubt he’s talking about the Replacements album.