Lot and his wife are key elements of the Bible, the Torah, and the Quran. As the story goes, Lot and his family flee the city of Sodom, upon which the Lord is raining fire and brimstone for the wickedness of its inhabitants. The Lord gives Lot one pivotal instruction: don't look back. But as the family leaves the city, Lot's wife looks back, and is promptly turned into a pillar of salt. Such is the paradox of the Abrahamic god: he will smite the wicked, but he will also turn on you in a heartbeat for the slightest offence.
While Lot's adventures continue from that point (in even grosser ways, if you're reading the Bible or Torah) the pangs of guilt he feels in the moment of his wife's destruction have reveberated through the millenia and resurface on "I Should Live in Salt," the opening track of the National's new album, Trouble Will Find Me. In a clearly anguished tone, vocalist Matt Berninger proclaims the narrator's regrets: "I should live in salt for leaving you behind!" This moment harkens back to a lyric from the band's second album, Sad Song for Dirty Lovers, in which one spouse tells the other, "How can you blame yourself, when I did everything I wanted to"—even though Lot's wife acted of her own volition, her husband takes the burden of blame on his own shoulders.
Through these opening, dramatic moments, we can construct a lens through which the rest of the record, and most of the National's oeuvre, for that matter, makes sense. Most of Berninger's lyrics pertain to human relationships—namely, that strong, yet volatile bond between spouses. Two fundamental truths of marriage: one magnanimous, one selfish, both true:
I would absorb all the pain in the world in order to keep you safe. I also expect you to be fully aware of this fact, and recognize me for it.
The bold declarations of bravery and strength coexist with an ever-present compulsion for self-preservation, and a craving for recognition and respect. These are the undercurrents of a relationship that often go unspoken, implied but rarely acknowledged, only flaring up, mockingly, in the moments of great uncertainty, weakness, or fear. It's easy, even for a seasoned fan of the National, to listen to Trouble Will Find Me and think, "man, he sure can seem self-pitying and whiny about his problems." These songs express self-pity because self-pity is a human emotion: it's not a pretty aspect of human nature, but one that would remain largely unexplored in contemporary music if not for Berninger's vividly lucid stories.
Ineffable transcendence aside, the National also succeed on the merits of simply being an excellent rock band. Trouble Will Find Me ranges from moody ballads to driving rockers, but true to the band's subversive nature, the rockers are more mellow than they first appear, and the ballads drip with menace. Rather than relying on traditional rock riffs, brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner craft a subtle, pulsing guitar bed; every once in a while, a guitar figure will sneak up as a hypnotic hook. The band's other set of brothers, Bryan and Scott Devendorf, continue to live up to their reputation as one of indie rock's best rhythm sections, locking the band in in a way that isn't flashy, but pivotal to the band's sound.
The gentlemen of the National have friends in high places, as evidenced by the guest roster on past albums, which have included Justin Vernon, Sufjan Stevens, and Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry. Only Vernon is absent from Trouble Will Find Me, but the band's sound has been further augmented by the addition of three female backing vocalists: Sharon Van Etten, Annie Clark (St. Vincent) and Nona Marie Invie (Minnesota's own Dark Dark Dark, one-time tour partners of the band). I honestly have no idea who appears on which tracks (although I think I can pick out Van Etten on the closing track, "Hard to Find") but their presence is vital throughout the record, namely the ghostly shadow vocal on "Don't Swallow the Cap" and the gut-wrenching coda of "This Is the Last Time."
The way Berninger constructs his songs will come as no surprise to longtime listeners, but still sounds continually inventive and unique. His lyrics are full of apparent non-sequitirs, amusing one-liners, and slow-burning crescendoes that build to a single, hollered phrase. Everyone will have different favorite lines after listening to Trouble Will Find Me; after the tenth listen, everyone's favorites may change completely. Words that seem like nonsense will suddenly emerge as striking insights, living alongside witty mini-jokes such as "God loves everybody / don't remind me." My personal favorites at the moment are the stunning L.A. diptych of "Humiliation" and "Pink Rabbits," though I'm confident time will reveal even more pleasures.
The National are a band who inspire exegeses from their most fervent fans, while providing meaningful, thought-provoking entertainment for everyone else. They have stood atop the indie rock mountain for several years now, and Trouble Will Find Me ensures they will remain entrenched at the top.
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