Like a lot of listeners of The National, I turn to Berninger’s band when I am feeling a particular set of emotions. On those overcast days that create an urge to wallow in existential questions and sad memories, I will flick to High Violet or Boxer on my phone or computer. I do not see the fact that The National has decided to set up shop in this emotional space as a limitation. Catchy explorations of darker emotions (anxiety, restlessness and dread being some of the band’s favorites) are hard to come by and the group has done this increasingly well over the past decade. Each entry to the band’s opus since 2005’s Alligator has added scope and perspective to the world of melancholic paranoia that they are crafting.
The problem is that after three albums we may finally be hitting the limit of what is possible within this setting. Although Trouble Will Find Me is a fine album, it is not a good album. This is particularly disappointing considering what a fantastic piece of art High Violet is, but the quintet has largely rejected moving forward to explore new sounds in favor of returning to well defined patterns and themes. There are definitely some good song on the album. “I Should Live in Salt”, “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, and “Hard to Find” are all hauntingly beautiful, as listeners have come to expect, but they serve more as addendums to 2010’s Violet than integral pieces of anything new or exciting.
Needless to say, I disagree with Ian Cohen’s Pitchfork review and the opinion that Trouble is “more ambitious, accomplished, and successful”; however, I do see how it could be “more accessible” in the sense that it is more boring. While High Violet successfully ebbs and flows between higher and lower tempo songs and nuanced yet distinct emotional vantages, there is no story being created by the placement of the tracks in the later album. Each song comes across as an entry in a daily journal whose author suffers not only from clinical depression, but also short term memory loss.
Where Berninger once purposefully linked his own feelings to the larger cultural and political milieu of distrust and fear that defined the 2000s (“Secret Meeting” and “Fake Empire”), he has now reverted his gaze inward. Repeatedly and without any deeper insight we hear how dull, awkward, and uncomfortable he is over and over again. On “Heavenface” he moans, “I wish someone would take my place … no one is careful all the time.” In “Graceless” he complains, “I am invisible and weightless/ you can’t imagine how I hate this” and in “Slipped” he shares, “I’m having trouble inside my skin/ I’m trying to keep my skeletons in.”
The problem is that those skeletons should not be kept in. They should be ripped out and splayed on the floor for display. The references to drug use, both prescription and non (“Sorrow” and “Afraid of Everyone”), and retching anxiety (“Mr. November” and “Conversation 16”) spread throughout their previous work is what made The National so good. The odd pairing of these very real problems and obscure references is what in the past saved the band from critics who claim they are pretentious and boring. With not even tangible symbols to grasp onto, I too am left wondering why I am listening to a middle-aged White man complain about his multiple inferiority complexes.
This brings us to why people listen to The National in general. I firmly believe that the Cincinnati band has enjoyed growing success because they have created a unique space of masculine depression in a culture where melancholy is so oftenly and aggressively coded as feminine. Where other male-led groups that occasionally explore these emotions can be written off as wimpy whiners or delicate artists (Radiohead, The Antlers, Grizzly Bear, etc.), it is impossible to call Berniger’s baritone voice effeminate. Dudes can bellow along to his lyrics and still feel masculine.
This expression of male vulnerability is needed in our culture, but the price at which Berninger is selling it may be too high. It has often bothered me that the lyricist treats women with Hopper-esque voyeurism, either as sources of pain or mystical panaceas to the type of white people problems by which he is uniquely afflicted. Again, without the substance of previous albums, this longstanding fault glares through even Bryan Devendorf’s overly-enthusiastic rhythm section. It is simply disappointing that as the band has aged they have continued to invest their emotional cache in this motif, while standardizing their musical style to the point of redundancy.