Trouble Will Find Me, the most self-assured collection of songs produced by The National in its 14-year career, is a tribute to fully evolved artistic vision—and, somewhat less mystically, to sleep deprivation.
In January 2012, following a twenty-two month tour to promote the band’s previous record, High Violet, guitarist Aaron Dessner returned home to Brooklyn, where the fitfulness of his newborn daughter threw Aaron into a more or less sustained fugue state—“sleepless and up all the time,” as he puts it. Punch-drunk, he shuffled into the band’s studio (situated in Aaron’s backyard), where he amused himself writing musical fragments that he then sent over to vocalist Matt Berninger. Recalls Matt of Aaron, “He’d be so tired while he was playing his guitar and working on ideas that he wouldn’t intellectualize anything. In the past, he and Aaron’s twin brother, Bryce would be reluctant to send me things that weren’t in their opinion musically interesting—which I respected, but often those would be hard for me to connect to emotionally. This time around, they sent me sketch after sketch that immediately got me on a visceral level."
From beginning to end, Trouble Will Find Me possesses the effortless and unself-conscious groove of a downstream swimmer. It’s at times lush and at others austere, suffused with insomniacal preoccupations that skirt despair without succumbing to it. There are alluring melodies, and the murderously deft undercurrent supplied by the Devendorfs.
There are songs that seem (for Matt anyway) overtly sentimental—among them, the Simon & Garfunkel-esque Fireproof, I Need My Girl (with Matt’s unforgettable if throwaway reference to a party “full of punks and cannonballers”) and I Should Live In Salt (which Aaron composed as a send-up to the Kinks and which Matt wrote about his brother).
While a recognition of mortality looms in these numbers, they’re buoyed by a kind of emotional resoluteness - “We’ll all arrive in heaven alive” - that will surprise devotees of Matt’s customary wry fatalism.
Then there are the songs that Aaron describes as “songs you could dance to - more fun, or at least The National’s version of fun.” These include Demons - a mordant romp in 7/4, proof that bleakness can actually be rousing - and the haunting Humiliation in which the insistent locomotion of Bryan’s snarebeat is offset by Matt’s semi-detached gallows rumination: “If I die this instant/taken from a distance/they will probably list it down among other things around town.”
Finally there are songs—like Pink Rabbits and the lilting Slipped (the latter termed by Aaron “the kind of song we’ve always wanted to write”)—that aspire to be classics, with Orbison-like melodic geometry. In these songs, as well as in Heavenfaced, Matt emerges from his self-described “comfort zone of chant-rock” and glides into a sonorous high register of unexpected gorgeousness.
The results are simultaneously breakthrough and oddly familiar, the culmination of an artistic journey that has led The National both to a new crest and, somehow, back to their beginnings—when, says Aaron, “our ideas would immediately click with each other. It’s free-wheeling again. The songs on one level are our most complex, and on another they’re our most simple and human. It just feels like we’ve embraced the chemistry we have.”