“You’re not that much like me. You should know me better than that,” Matt Berninger warbles in his signature baritone on “I Should Live in Salt,” the opening track from the National’s new long player, “Trouble Will Find Me.” When I first heard this line, a smile crept across my face. I do feel like I know him. In fact, the comfort I get from listening to the National seems similar to that which comes from a close friendship. Not in the sense that we have hung out or shared a beer together, though I would wholeheartedly welcome that. The National and I have been on top of a mountain together. The National and I have stared at the ocean together. The National and I have taken long trips with people I love. The National and I have shared bitter, painful moments together, as well as plenty of moments of grandeur and resplendence. In all honesty, the National have been in more intimate moments of my life than probably 90 percent of the people I know—but I’ve never cried, because, you know, I’m a man….
There are very few bands that have brought this sort of bond out of me. Pearl Jam was the first, the Smashing Pumpkins were the best; mewithoutYou are the intellectuals, the National are the romantics. These four have been with me, through thick and thin, better and worse, and will be for the foreseeable future. So, a few months ago, when I learned of the imminent arrival of “Trouble Will Find Me,” I knew that this would hands down be my most anticipated album of 2013, then when the first two singles, “Demons” and “Don’t Swallow The Cap,” surfaced, I knew that this album would join the ranks of their previous efforts as an exercise in honesty and emotivity. Two weeks ago, when I added the album to my iPod, I sat and stared at the cover for a few moments, trying to prepare myself for what was coming before I actually took the first listen. I was glad that I did. Thirteen songs, coming in just shy of an hour, make up “Trouble Will Find Me.”
Upon reaching the end of the album the first time, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. The themes are excruciatingly heavy. Matt Berninger is dealing with getting older, holding regret, feeling trapped in his own psyche, and becoming irrelevant right in front us. The bold nakedness and resolute sincerity in every song are things that I think we need. We need to hear the truth. This life brings anxiety, and aging doesn’t necessarily make it easier to handle. “Jenny, I am in trouble. I can’t get these thoughts out of me,” Berninger mournfully confesses on “This Is the Last Time” to a woman who is addressed a couple of times on the album, but whose relationship to him is unclear. This unsurprising statement reveals how important this album is to the frontman.
While “Trouble Will Find Me” is wrought with hefty thematic verbiage, it’s also nicely balanced out by Berninger’s dry sarcasm and the complicated simplicity brought to the table by the sets of brothers who make up the instrumental end of the National. The Dessner Brothers (guitar, piano) and the Devendorf brothers (rhythm) have a gift for making complex compositions sound as if done with ease, and this album finds them at their absolute best.
In the midst the somber overtones of the album’s first single “Demons,” a song where he seems to be giving into what haunts him, Berninger wryly gives us a sign of hope. “I can’t fight it anymore; I’m going through an awkward phase.” Maybe this is just a phase, and Berninger will grow out of it and be better for it on the other end. Maybe we all will. All we can do is hope. “Trouble Will Find Me” is out now via 4AD.