A mind’s inability to relinquish itself to sleep was the first thought that left me once I had finished sampling The National‘s latest expression, Trouble Will Find Me.
The album, on first listen, was a calming transfer of notes that kept my attention shifting back and forth between wakefulness and drowsiness. By no means do I mean to say the music was dull – far from it. It was a tranquil downcast of instruments that gave rise and insight into a man’s life. This vivid struggle portrayed through the rustle of Berninger’s vocals emotes his character’s inability to know where to stand or where to go. The conversational lyrics hold more questions than answers, and the deeper he and the listener descend, the more connected the two become. As I repeated the process of hearing the tracks, this purgatory between being awake and asleep became more apparent. The inability to turn off is conveyed through the tempo and rhythm of the sounds vibrating in a constant lull. The desire to leave these thoughts until the daylight is noted, while at the same time there is a clear need for some kind of resolve.
The album cover art continues in this theme of introspection. A woman’s head is made out in the style of trompe l’oeil (“deceive the eye”) in an attempt to create the optical illusion that the object is in three dimensions. The single head placed on a platter is oddly satisfying when looked at and digested. The wry eye that stares back, the nub of her ear lobe almost tuning in, and the oily throng of hair all placed on a clinically white table seems to all be waiting patently to be inspected.
“I Should Live In Salt”
The image itself is striking; a man engulfed by tiny white fragments all fitting perfectly into a glass dispenser. The repeated phrase, “You should know me better than that,” along with the pitter-patter of strings created in my mind a mood of displacement. The need to connect is there, I feel, but for whatever reason, the plug seems to be incompatible. I kept mulling over the glass of the saltshaker – how it could just be shattered, and how the fragments once dispersed would reveal whatever was keeping these two apart.
In a drawling, rumbling tone, “Demons” recounts a past love that comforts and haunts the speaker. “Never kept me up before / Now I’ve been awake for days,” – the chilling score blurs the lines between a memory worth having and a feeling worth forgetting. In the chorus, when he mutters, “I stay down with my demons,” he means he would rather stay with his recollections than learn to forget them. Even though they give him pain, he would rather hold them than lose them. Whether he can continue to do so is left up to the listener.
“Don’t Swallow The Cap”
If you could take a glass bottle, twist off the top, and pour out your life, what would you see? What would be the most important, what would be the least? What could you do away with, what would you keep? This mid-life realization is carried out with ease and grace. Line after line of this man’s life is released and the rhythm is intoxicating. “Everything I love is on the table / Everything I love is out to sea,” – the measurement of one’s life is one of the hardest things that can be done. The ramblings of this man’s personal evaluation will feel familiar to anyone who has grown past themselves and acquired others in the process.
Imperfect, the narrator paints himself as a fatherly anti-hero bent on doing the right thing. He struggles with the concept and tries fervently to come to terms with it all. He feels trapped as if cold metal handcuffs are holding him down. Somehow his choices do not feel like choices. The pressure is expressed through the sharp nattering of drums and the rushing of strings that adds weight to everything being said. It is made clear that he is willing to carry the weight, however the events leading up to him taking responsibility undoubtedly still play backwards in his head.
“I Need My Girl”
Looking past what has been laid out and evaluated in the album thus far, the simple desire to keep close to his significant other seems to outweigh his other pervasive thoughts. The list of pros and cons dissolve into the soft ambiance and sporadic anecdotes of times he holds close. This track feels like he’s looking back at all he has thought so far, wishing he hadn’t lost sight of what has been in front of him all along – “I keep feeling smaller and smaller / I need my girl / I need my girl.”
Evaluating a work like this when the subject matter is looking in on itself is questionable. Interpreting something presented in front of you always leaves open the possibly of being wrong. The wonderful thing about this record is that however far off the mark the listener is, it still brings them somewhere else, which is the point in the first place. The effect was successful if the goal was for me to look on my own life and understand where I seem to be, just like this character spoken about by Matt Berninger and made alive by band-mates Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner, Bryan Devendorf and Scott Devendorf.
This is possibly my favourite collection of well grooved and smoothed songs since their album Boxer came out in 2008. A personal confession by all members, it neither feels preachy nor asks too much of itself. It doesn’t demand anything other than to be listened to in the hopes that it connects and converses well with its listener.
The National play the PNE Amphitheatre in Vancouver on September 22 with guests Frightened Rabbit.