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. Last January, 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.
In truth, the band, which includes bassist Scott Devendorf and his brother Bryan on drums, hadn’t planned on recording new music for at least another year or two. The High Violet tour represented a quantum leap in The National’s trajectory; the venues got bigger and bigger, and the band felt the pressure to deliver the shows to larger crowds. Matt says, “We enjoyed it, but it was never easy. We always reminded ourselves that all of this is really fragile—that if we don’t deliver in, say, some festival show in Europe somewhere, we could start to slide.”
It’s strange that a band like this would be feeling insecure. Few groups have sustained such credibility—with audiences as well as critics—as authors of a sound that is simultaneously original, witty, moving and unforgettable. After the success of their fourth record, Boxer, The National sealed their artistic reputation in 2010 with the widely acclaimed High Violet and spent the next two years delivering sellout performances around the world. Along the way, Aaron and Bryce continued their individual side projects (Aaron producing records for such bands as Sharon Van Etten and Local Natives, Bryce composing for Kronos Quartet and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, among others) while the band as a whole devoted work to Tibet House, Red Hot and other charities. During the 2012 campaign cycle, The National performed at several get-out-the-vote concerts in Ohio and warmed up an Iowa rally for President Obama.
But, Matt confesses, “I feel like for the past ten years we’d been chasing something, wanting to prove something. Early on we were labeled as alt-country, sleepy miserablists, and that stung, especially because it was partly true. So for a long time, we were motivated in our songwriting to prove that wrong. We had a lot of chips on our shoulders. And this chase was about trying to disprove our own insecurities. After touring High Violet, I think we felt like we’d finally gotten there. Now we could relax—not in terms of our own expectations, but we didn’t have to prove our identity any longer.” Trouble Will Find Me possesses a directness, a coherency and—dare it be said about such an unpredictable band—an approachability that suggests The National has at long last located its emotional target.
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. While a recognition of mortality looms in these numbers, they’re buoyed by a kind of emotional resoluteness 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.” Finally there are songs that aspire to be classics, with Orbison-like melodic geometry. 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.”