MUSIC REVIEW: Harmoniously at odds with themselves and success

first_imgMore than a decade of critical and commercial success hasn’t done much to lighten the dour notes in The National’s music.That much is clear on “Trouble Will Find Me,” the sixth full-length release from the band that formed in Ohio in 1999 and later made the move to the hipper homebase of Brooklyn, New York. The lyrical notes of self-defeatism and helplessness that marked albums like 2007’s “Boxer” and 2005’s “Alligator” is still in full force on these 13 tracks. The dark and dreary musical echoes of folk singers like Leonard Cohen and rock outfits like Joy Division are just as clear as they were on “The Virginia” EP from 2008 and “High Violet,” the last studio album released by the band in 2010.But the band hasn’t managed to entirely escape the benefits that creative victories can offer. “Trouble Will Find Me” reveals a band that’s taken full advantage of the opportunities that top-selling albums can offer. A polished, perfected musical dynamic drives the dark poetry about frustrated ambitions and discarded dreams. Lines about being vacant are at odds with the band’s keen eye for every note, every harmony and every effect. Cries about suffering “a lot of pain” clash with an energy and life that shines brighter than on any other past album.It seems that the success and attention that started with the band’s self-titled debut in 2001 wasn’t squandered on the quintet. Lead singer Matt Berninger has pushed progressively to grow as an artist, and that journey has led to new heights on “Trouble.” On tunes like “Graceless” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” drummer Bryan Devendorf sounds like a different player than he did on those early albums. His use of the drum kit is more expansive and expressive; he balances simplicity with the complex demands of playing in odd time signatures and creating new sonic effects. His twin brother and bassist, Scott Devendorf, is also at top form, as is the band’s other pair of twins, guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner.That kind of musical polish feels at odds with the dreary lyrical and thematic strains of the album. “I stay down with my demons,” Berninger laments in a dark baritone on the aptly titled “Demons” adding, “I’m going through an awkward phase … It’s become the crux of me/I wish that could rise above it.” On “Humiliation,” Berninger sings of romantic disappointment and affirms “I cried a little/I got fried a little.” He sings of vague menaces spotted in the skies, he laments about tunnel vision and needing a “little life today.”Even the song titles hint at dreariness. “I Should Live in Salt,” “Graceless” and “This Is the Last Time” hardly speak to the band’s rapid ride to pop culture prominence in the past 10 years.Therein lies the biggest sticking point of the album. The band’s knack for penning anthems of upset and ennui have struck an undeniable chord with audiences — the past year has seen the band playing for presidential campaigns, and “Trouble Will Find Me” debuted at the top of the charts last week. But the album’s polish and expertise seems to clash with the tales of loss, confusion and wandering that Berninger croons in his hopeless baritone.“Demons” is a frenetic laundry list of self-criticisms. The words that drive “Pink Rabbits” are all about stalled love and self-indulgent confusion. As its title indicates, “Humiliation” is seeped in hopelessness and critique. But the music underlying this gloom tells a different story. It shows the confidence and skill of a band that’s spent a decade in the spotlight, and that expertise takes away from the dreary stories and deprecation that makes up a good chunk of the lyrics.Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or [email protected]last_img