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Friday, December 13, 2013

Albums of the Year - #9: The National - "Trouble Will Find Me"

Rating: 8.3/10

I'll be honest with you; I'm not crazy about the second half of Trouble Will Find Me. After four amazing tracks packed into the top half of the line-up, the album unfortunately drops off in quality a bit. With the major exceptions being the electrifying "Graceless" and pitter-patter of "Pink Rabbits," the tracklist starting with "Heavenfaced" is somewhat lacking. There's nothing inherently bad about any of the songs, but there also isn't anything to pull you in either. Devoid of any kind of earth-shattering moments and leaning too heavily on Berninger's melancholy vocals, songs like "Slipped" and "Hard to Find" merely stretch out the record longer than it needed to be.

That being said, I still gave the album an 8.3. Why's this? Well, though the second division of Trouble Will Find Me is disappointing, four of the first five songs are awe-inspiring. "I Should Live in Salt," "Demons," "Don't Swallow the Cap," and "Sea of Love" more than make up for the rest of the album's shortcomings. All possess that trademark sound all of The National's best tracks do, except maximized to new heights.

"I Should Live in Salt" kicks off the album with a simple acoustic riff over swells of feedback. Berninger immediately leaves his comfort zone by ditching his usual baritone for a higher vocal line, especially during the chorus. "Don't make me read your mind/you should know better than that," he croons. The song has a subdued yet still regretful approach that works wonders.

The album's lead single, "Demons" rides Bryan Devendorf's tom-tom beat as Berninger retreats into a swath of low groans and mumbles. The song's lyrics talk about somebody who focuses on the negative parts of their life; the choral refrain of "I stay down with my demons" indicates this.Once the bridge arrives, Berninger seems to confront his issues ("Everyday I start so great...") but ultimately fails ("...then the sunlight dims"). The most soul-crushing lyric comes at the most musically intense moment; as the orchestra lashes out most vigorously and the Dessner brothers cry out on guitar, Berninger laments "when I walk into a room/I do not light it up" before unleashing a certain expletive that speaks volumes about his frustrations.

"Don't Swallow the Cap" recalls the sounds of Boxer's stellar "Brainy," only more matured and developed. A complex start-and-stop drum beat, constant piano clangs, and an ever-increasing sense of sadness compliment the vocals outstandingly. Harmonies play a big role here, as the male-female duo vocal throughout is later joined by an additional voice interjecting sparse thoughts between lines. The National are known for being emotionally raw, and "Don't Swallow the Cap" shows exactly why. Berninger's truly a great lyricist, though admittedly he tends to be somewhat one-dimensional in terms of mood. Still, this track has some great lines. "I have only two emotions/careful fear and dead devotion" pretty much speaks for itself, while Berninger gives a nod to some of his favorite music when he sings "And if you want/to see me cry/play Let It Be/or Nevermind."

After a brief interlude from the frisky "Fireproof," the album's crowning moment arrives with "Sea of Love." I liked the track so much that I named it my fifth favorite song of the entire year. It's the most "rock" sounding track on the record, complete with crunchy guitars and a driving drum pulse.The verse starts right away, building up and up until the constant snare hits evolve into rolls and horns are added to the mix. The sudden dropout of everything but guitars and vocals catches the listener off guard as Berninger claims "if I stay here/trouble will find me." The quick quiet-down then departs as the rushed verse returns. The anticipation continues to grow as Berninger delivers perhaps his most clever lyric to date, asking, "Hey Jill/sorry I hurt you but/they say love is a virtue/don't they?" The backing vocals here are fantastic as well, as they sound even more desperate than Berninger does.

So, based almost entirely on four songs, Trouble Will Find Me clawed its way to #9 on my list of the year's best albums. Basically, that means I really loved those tracks. Though it may not be The National's most consistent record in their discography, it certainly has some of their best songs. And that's good enough for me.

Key Tracks: "I Should Live in Salt," "Demons," "Don't Swallow the Cap," "Sea of Love"

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