The National embody what a lot of people love in rock bands. It has to do with the concept of paying dues — a rite of passage we love to see bands earn — and the National are the definition of it. The Ohio indie rockers have been fighting the good fight since 1999 and didn’t start to actually make money until a half-decade had passed. Old school, right?
2007’s zen-rock statement “Boxer” — arguably the band’s most enduring LP — was the portrait of a band of 30-somethings learning their way around adulthood. Three years later, they followed with “High Violet,” an album which found frontman Matt Berninger (then 39 years old) easing into that role, which included being a father for the first time. Along with bandmates the Dessner brothers (Aaron and Bryce) and the Devendorf brothers (Bryan and Scott), the National had reached a level of comfort very few indie rock acts achieve. That feeling of comfort permeates every part of their new album, “Trouble Will Find Me,” due May 21 on 4AD.
A couple of years ago, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe asked the National, “Why don’t you guys just write a pop song? What are you afraid of? Don’t be embarrassed.” Whether or not they’ve tried to become more radio-friendly is not clear, although it’s evident that the National are very satisfied at being the National, which includes few pop elements. They’re a heady, dense, atmospheric rock band loved by many adults who are comfortable with being adults, and “Trouble” isn’t likely to win them too many new fans. But that’s fine — the National already have plenty, and they’ve been trained to know that their records are always worth the time.
As you dive into “Trouble Will Find Me,” join Billboard on this track-by-track look at one of the year’s most high-profile indie rock releases.
1. I Should Live In Salt – This was one of the first songs that came together for the “Trouble” sessions, and completing it was the catalyst for getting the band back on track for a new album. Musically, “I Should Live In Salt” demonstrates that the National are comfortable picking up where they left off with “High Violet” — plaintive, full of metaphors, and brooding. Berninger is feeling guilty for leaving someone behind, and living in salt seems an agonizing torture.
“I stay down with my demons,” sings Berninger on a particularly National-esque line. At this point, the album almost symmetrical to “High Violet,” as “Demons” elegantly mopes along a lot like that album’s second song “Sorrow.”
3. Don’t Swallow the Cap – For the first time on “Trouble,” drummer Bryan Devendorf really makes his presence felt, contributing a more prominent beat that drives the track along and gives the album a needed boost in tempo. When they finally get to the chorus, the National employ a subtle call-and-respond vocal technique that quietly namedrops “Let It Be” and “Nevermind.”
4. Fireproof – This tranquil song introduces us to Jennifer, another of the National’s notable female protagonists, in the vein of “Ada,” “Karen,” and Victoria (of “Squalor Victoria”). Of his subject, Berninger muses, “You’re fireproof; nothing breaks your heart.”
5. Sea of Love
The album’s title comes from this uptempo offering, which sounds primed to become one of the songs the National really rock out live (well, rock in the urbane, blazer-clad sense). The song ends in a sea of vocal yelps, making the outro one of the album’s most visceral moments.
6. Heavenfaced – “Literate” is an adjective that gets tossed around to the point of cliché in describing indie rock lyrics, but this is the type of song that reminds you the National really deserve it. That’s what Berninger gets for inventing words like “heavenfaced” (in context: “Can’t face heaven all heavenfaced”) and busting rhymes like “fever” and “freezer.”
7. This Is the Last Time – Here, we meet another female subject (Jenny) and get another striking metaphor: “Your love is such a swamp.” Deep down, it’s a desperate plea for leaving someone that Berninger knows is bad for him. The little nuances — plucking of acoustic guitar, background strings, added female vocals in the outro — really shine, and create a meticulous, chamber-music experience.
8. Graceless – In the previous track, Berninger cryptically mentions having “Tylenol and beer.” The theme continues here when he sings, “I took the medicine and I went missing.” Maybe it’s not that kind of medicine (he also mentions “powder”), and aside from the drugs, there’s also a death theme running through this drum-heavy song. On an album of growers, this is a more immediate winner.
9. Slipped – In the vein of “Green Gloves,” “Slipped” is one of those sparse, atmospheric songs the National do so well. There’s a lot of empty space here, which gives plenty of room for a fleeting, nimble guitar riff and Berninger’s vocals. Lyrically, he’s lamenting a Southern city he hates (signs point to Dallas) and singing, “I will not spill my guts out,” as if that line wasn’t 14 years too late.
10. I Need My Girl – You’d never call the National a “guitar band,” but this song offers a rare moment when their song is built around the instrument. “I Need My Girl” opens with a delicate lick that pulls the listener in, and uses it as a foundation for a somber tune about desperation and devotion.
11. Humiliation – The last time this writer saw the National perform, a self-aware Matt Berninger joked about his tendency to write sad songs, right before playing “Sorrow.” If “Humiliation” ever gets played live, it will probably need a similar introduction. Actually, this one isn’t going to be much of a live cut — a bit too meandering for this point in the album, this one probably could have been left as a b-side.
12. Pink Rabbits – Berninger pines, “Am I the one you think about when you’re sitting in your fainting chair drinking pink rabbits?” Then he name-checks Morrissey’s essential compilation “Bona Drag” and likens himself to “a television version of a person with a broken heart.” It’s a classic National sentiment, and one of the many lyrics worth dissecting here.
13. Hard to Find – “Hard to Find” is exactly the song one would expect to close “Trouble Will Find Me”: Berninger is mature and accepting, but the listener gets the feeling that he’ll never stop questioning himself. In sending another National record off into the sunset, its soothing, delicate outro probably would have hit harder if the album didn’t have such a multitude of soothing, delicate outros, but the job still gets done.