Critics often talk about how comfortable The National are, as though they’re some sort of safety net band when your travels through “edgier” music get too rough. I never really understood this sentiment until I listened their most recent album, Trouble Will Find Me. The National, I believe, represent to many the creative zenith of a genre of music that is itself safe (Pitchfork has referred to it as “boilerplate indie”); nestled between string-arranged indie and big stadium rock is a band like The National. They’re like Coldplay on barbiturates and wrecked by Jens Lekman-levels of emotional guilt. That Trouble Will Find Me is a creative achievement for The National, and certainly a great sounding album, is offset somewhat by how much of a chore so many of its songs are. An album by a band who are clearly very comfortable playing together, Trouble Will Find Me is a risk-free piece of music – The National have made sure not to include anything that would bring the album down, but have neglected to put anything into it that would make it stand out in any substantial way.
Trouble Will Find Me is in fact a great sounding album, and very obviously a labor of devotion. It isn’t just that the album is well produced; it’s that every instrument – from the water-logged Brit-pop guitars to Matt Berninger’s sonorous moans – spills out like the contents of a rustic cornucopia at some medieval feast. If The Smiths were making music in 2013, Trouble Will Find Me would be an exceptional blueprint for how their albums, equally reliant on stringy guitars and impressive vocals, should be produced. For example, on “This Is The Last Time” Berninger’s voice wraps in and out of a cello part into a powerful stream of pure, church lit warmth. Indeed, The National have managed to condense their stadium inclinations into something almost cathedral-appropriate; something that would be at home amongst the stained glass, the frankincense, and the candlelight. They’re soothing enough that you could rub rosary beads in the pews as they play “Sea of Love” for six hours straight. That The National have actually organized a performance of such is a testament to how inoffensive and bland their music actually is.
“Slipped” is probably the prettiest song on the album, and also probably its biggest non-achievement as a composition. There isn’t anything wrong with it, or with any other song on Trouble Will Find Me, and that’s almost the problem. Nothing has been allowed to go wrong – The National are only playing the safest bets they can. Great as this album sounds, the production is hardly inventive or original enough to cover up some incredibly by-the-books indie songwriting. And it’s not that I think The National are photocopying some other, better band whose songs sound exactly like theirs. Fans of The National can rest assured that there isn’t some older, better version of The National – representative of a fairly broad genre as they are, The National have patched together – out of Coldplay, Blonde Redhead, and Tom Waits – a sound that is very much their own. They just aren’t writing very memorable songs – there’s no whimsy, there’s no fantasy, and there’s no sense of humor. The National are like the guy in your existentialism class who seems pretty smart but only because they act like a 40 year old. The National are emotionally one-note, which makes it very difficult to pick any sort of vibrant emotionality out of their music – there’s nothing to compare it with.
Trouble Will Find Me‘s strongest track, “Pink Rabbits” has, conversely, a kind of haunted Billy Joel piano part that repeats for most of the song. Despite its sooth-rock speed, it might be the album’s most lyrically energetic song, and the piano makes it sound almost goofy, and somewhat endearing. Trouble Will Find Me is lind of like a glass of warm milk: there are people who drink one every night with dinner, or right before they go to bed – not because it’s delicious, but because it’s comfortable, something of a standard. Then there are other people, like me, who gag at the thought of it’s creamy whiteness streaking the inside of a glass. Much like The National, it’s not an acquired taste – it’s just a matter of what makes you comfortable. Trouble Will Find Me‘s mercurial sound and emotionally solvent performances get it pretty far, but there isn’t enough artistry for it to be taken all the way. For a band as content with their status as indie rock’s “old faithfuls” as The National seem to be, it would take even just one moment of utter novelty, of humor, or of an original chord change to let us know that business is meant.
The National – “Pink Rabbits”
The National – “Sea of Love”