Trouble Will Find Me is filled with stories of people in turmoil. There is more to these songs than ruminations of the clinically depressed man plumbing the depths of disappointment, dread, and disillusionment. The souls in these songs are often overcome with sorrow, self-pity, and self-loathing resulting in feelings of isolation and disassociation, both chosen and involuntary.
Lead vocalist/lyricist Matt Berninger tells us "There's a science to walking through windows" and I'm ready to be that scientist. It feels like an admission of guilt, talking about songs and ideas that evoke powerful emotion and connect this deeply but that is the draw of the dark, beautiful world of Trouble Will Find Me.
Before we explore lyrics that haunt, let's examine the sounds and moods of the music. The National don't "do" rock in the conventional sense. I'm not suggesting they've uncovered a brand new style but they've taken a road less traveled. Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers provided a glimpse but they crafted and refined that sonic universe beginning with Alligator and continuing on Boxer and High Violet.
They rely more on ensemble playing than virtuosic musicianship, crafting soft, sweeping symphonies and gentle dirges while mixing in occasional moments of a more conventional rock sound. The not-so-secret weapon of the band is the quiet power of Bryan Devendorf's subliminal rhythms. He plays a lot of notes but in an understated manner, relying on active use of toms rather than bold, boisterous rim shots or ear-splitting cymbal crashes. It's the sum, not the parts.
The result of Devendorf's drumming, the work of his brother Scott on bass, and the twin guitar of the Dessner twins is a hypnotic aura perfect for Berninger's cryptic phrases and emotional introspection. He rarely writes in linear narratives, focusing instead on establishing moods and setting scenes with phrasing both pointed and opaque. He places contradictory words in close proximity and uses common phrases and clichés against us, twisting their universally understood meaning. The stories are rarely obvious but their impact is clear.
Berninger introduces us to a soul in crisis on "Sea Of Love," someone who is questioning motives and feeling frantic, lost, and at a loss. Both people in this relationship are submerged in hurt, and at least one of them saw this coming all along but that knowledge hasn't made the terrible choice before him any simpler. There aren't obvious punk rock overtones in the sound of The National yet this was influenced in part by a Soviet-era punk band (particularly the video for the song). No one will confuse "Sea" with anything from the catalog of The Ramones or Sex Pistols but there is ramshackle energy and urgency propelled by Devendorf's deceptively active drumming.
"Don't Swallow The Cap" is another restless tale of a man at a crossroads. He tells us "I have only two emotions: careful fear and devotion; I can't get the balance right" before asking himself if he should just leave and what that means for him. These questions and doubts are paralyzing and Berninger gives the man a fascinating perspective, "When they ask me, 'What do I see?' I say, 'A bright, white, beautiful heaven hanging over me.'" Heaven isn't shining above or illuminating his path, it's one more thing hanging over him like the eerie piano chords punctuating the music.
"Demons" is a dirge in 7/8 time and despite a sense of profound resignation, Berninger gives voice to a wish for something more and describes "the sudden, sinking feeling of a man about to fly." He's in a confusing place tinged with nostalgia for the people of his past. He wants to rise and fight what pulls him down before accepting fate "down with my demons."
Secrets -- keeping and revealing them -- is a recurring theme throughout Trouble and nowhere is it more poignantly explored than on "Slipped." He's coming apart and struggling not to reveal it but masking that is only part of what cuts him:
I'm having trouble inside my skin
I try to keep my skeletons in
I'll be a friend and a fuckup and everything
but I'll never be
anything you ever want me to be
The gentle, muted murk of the music bathes the tumult in mournful ambience. The torment within is terrible enough but the isolating truth of feeling like an inevitable disappointment in another's eyes is what crushes him and returns him to the scene where it all began to break.
Trouble Will Find Me is an uncomfortable record where people submerged in oceans of complex emotions and shattered hopes are forced to look in the mirror and face their demons and ghosts. The songs feel intimate like portraits and distant like landscapes. The National are masters of tension and dissonance, creating something raw, real, terrible, beautiful, haunted, and alive.