Sunday, August 18, 2013

album review: 'trouble will find me' by the national (RETRO REVIEW)

So here's the rant you've all been waiting for, the topic of which I'm sure has been seared into your mind since the very beginning: why I, like apparently every other music critic, thoroughly hates Mumford & Sons with the hatred of a thousand suns. The faux-folk rock band that deserves to be consigned into the flaming abyss, the band that co-opted the image and earnestness of folk rock and turned it into shameless commercialism, clearly one of the worst acts to have every blighted this world today. And I, as a critic with reputably harsh standards, clearly must hate them with extreme force, right?

Well... no, not really. Make no mistake, Mumford & Sons aren't a good band, but they sure as hell aren't the scourge of all music as a slew of would-be hipsters have branded them. They have some natural talent for catchy-as-all-hell melody lines and memorable harmonies, they have a mostly distinctive sound, and they sell all of their material with gutwrenching sincerity (which, believe it or not, goes a long way with me). To me, I've consigned to the rung of 'painfully mediocre', right next to Nickelback (don't even start).

Hmm, come to think of it, Mumford & Sons does seem to strike me as rather similar to the post-grunge act that ruled the rock airwaves throughout the early 2000s. Both bands have a lead singer that sounds like he's delivering his lines directly from his colon, both were accused of selling out to the tasteless masses (believe it or not, this was actually true for very early Nickelback), and both made music that somehow lodged itself in our brains like tapeworms. 

But what I think is most indicative of the similarities between these two bands is a very important concept that I've been skirting about for a while, but haven't found the right time to talk about until now: artistic framing. This is most often conceived as a device for literature and film, where the context can be adjusted depending on how the scene is written or shot, and which can be used to powerful effect by talented directors and great writers. One of the reasons, for example, while many people despise Twilight isn't for the misogyny or the stalking or the Mormon undercurrents, but because said elements are framed in such a romantic light. In the hands of any sane writer, Bella's story could have easily been written as that of a thriller or a melodrama between a very stupid girl and her vampiric stalker, but Stephanie Meyer sets up these events to feel romantic and attractive to Bella, and thus the reader - you know, abandoning appropriate context in favour of the author's wish-fulfillment fantasy.

And believe it or not, this becomes a big issue in music as well. A lot of alarmists tend to look at acts like Eminem and Kanye West and see terrible, reprehensible human beings promoting messages of misogyny, homophobia, and violence - and yet both artists have made it clear from the very beginning that they aren't role models and that nobody should aspire to be like them (hell, Eminem wrote several songs about it). They (or at least their artistic personas) are assholes, and we shouldn't so much glorify them as recoil from or pity them (that's the one big reason that I give a pass to Relapse, an album that seems designed to make Slim Shady look as pathetic and wretched as possible). Of course, the question then becomes that some people will interpret the surface themes of the album anyways and follow their manifests of hatred anyways, but that's a trickier topic for another day.

So coming back to Mumford & Sons and Nickelback, the same problems with framing crop up here too (albeit significantly more with Mumford & Sons). We're expected to buy into these acts as having sensitivity and/or more heartfelt emotions, and it feels completely disingenuous with Nickelback's humourless and sour delivery and Mumford & Sons' consistently terrible lyrics. You don't buy into the emotions they're trying to convey because some element of their framing completely shatters that immersion. It's why I'd argue Nickelback has actually slowly been getting a bit better over the years: they've actually embraced the fact that they're douchebags, and are just rolling with it to create douche-bro party anthems that at least feel authentic (if a little gross).

Mumford & Sons, unfortunately, haven't quite reached that point of self-awareness, which I think is one of the big sticking points for me with the band. They deliver all of their material with the heartfelt earnestness of a man proposing marriage in the mid-1800s, but their lyrics are rife with lines that undermine this earnestness at every turn, which makes it look all the more like a pose (also, their music has little-to-no instrumental texture and the production is pop as all hell, but that's another issue). And more than once, I've wished that we could find that band that had all of the earnest sincerity of Mumford & Sons, but had the lyrical context and texture and was framed in a way that made sense or added additional depth.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to The National, the indie post-punk act for which I was waiting. Now I suspect that many of you actually already know this band (particularly if you watch Game of Thrones), but I just discovered this band and considering they're easily one of the best acts I've discovered in a long time, I want to talk about them at length. Make no mistake, considering my luck approaching indie acts this year, I was more than a little surprised by how incredibly solid The National was, particularly when placed in competition with their lesser contemporaries, and they pushed a lot of important buttons for me.

For starters, the lyrics were audible and high enough in the mix to make out, and occasionally there was some real emotive poetry hidden behind the clever turns of phrase. I wouldn't quite say it's as descriptive or lurid as that of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, but it's not trying to be either. The National is very much a 'mature' act, and like Deep Purple from earlier this year, they transform that maturity into a real strength that adds poignance to their lyrics. You can tell through the placement of the vocals that The National began as an alternative country act, and the importance placed on lyrics and the 'older' subject matter comes through here as well. More importantly, The National are smart enough to frame their songs intelligently, making sure that if their song's narrator could be interpreted as an asshole or a prick or a loser, he's appropriately positioned in that regard, supported by both lyrics and instrumentation. And considering how many songs The National writes about sad-sack losers who have screwed up their lives, they've nailed the formula down to a tee.

But what I find significantly more interesting with The National comes through on the other underlying theme of the majority of their work: upper class Americana, and the existential ennui that comes with it. Admittedly, The National do a very solid job speaking to all demographics, but with the highly literate songwriting and richer instrumentation, it's very clear they're targeting a certain college-aged yuppie hipster group within popular culture. And as with before, it comes back to the framing for why this works, both skewering the nastier elements of these subcultures (racism, classism, misogyny, antiquated value systems, etc.) and still writing music for the more perceptive of the audience to find the distinct sadness in said characters. In comparison to Vampire Weekend (who treat their privilege like a family heirloom only they are allowed to play with), The National are more blunt and don't hesitate to cast their narrators as just as sad, pathetic, desperate, and lonely as anyone else, and it's a testament to their excellent instrumentation that you're actually able to sympathize instead of scoff with derision at 'white people problems'.

All of that being said, I do have a few issues with The National. The band has occasionally recycled instrumental themes (which can get exasperating) and musical dynamics, which can lead to some songs running together. And as often as Matt Berninger has been compared to Nick Cave for his delivery and uncompromising framing, I'd argue he doesn't quite have the same emotional range in his voice that Cave does. Granted, he pulls off depressed and morose very well, but anger still occasionally seems like a foreign emotion to Berninger and that can get frustrating. On top of all of that, with similar thematic elements running through their previous five albums, it would be nice to see them switch up the formula, go for something darker or in a different vein entirely. Otherwise, it just feels like they lack imagination.

So, what do I think of their newest album, Trouble Will Find Me?

Well, I think it's good. In fact, it's great. In fact, I have no confidence that not only is Trouble Will Find Me one of the best albums of 2013, it might just find a way to climb up to a pretty solid spot on my year end list as well. The National have hit another one right out of the park here, and while I don't quite think it's as strong as Boxer (my personal favourite album from the band), it definitely does everything for which it needs to succeed.

Let me address my complaints right out of the gate: The National are playing in a wheelhouse that they've spent the past several albums working in, and while I completely disagree with people calling the band 'boring', I do think they could have afforded to shake up the formula a bit more than they did on this album. Once again, we have an album delving into various elements of human misery with the intelligent and well-chosen framing that The National perfected, and if you're the kind of person who relished the more 'upbeat' moments on previous albums from The National, you might find yourself a bit disappointed.

And in comparison to their album High Violet, which felt rich and opulent but occasionally brought a theatrical touch that didn't quite work, Trouble Will Find Me might just be the most stripped down and lean album for The National since Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers. It's again here where their country music influences rise up in the rich lyrics and quieter instrumentation, and those critics who aren't as much of a fan of that sort of 'simplification' will have plenty more ammunition. Now, since I have never denigrated country music, I have no problem with the lyrics once more taking center stage (one of my quibbles with High Violet is that occasionally the lyrics got lost in the opulence), but I can't help but notice that the lyrics do feel a bit simpler on this album as well. I'm not saying they're bad by any stretch of the mind - Berninger is still a great, organic lyricist - but the moments of striking, truly poignant poetry on this album are a bit fewer and far between, and that did irk me.

But those complaints feel very small in comparison with the wealth of elements The National has in their favour with Trouble Will Find Me. For starters, this might be the best Matt Berninger performance on record to date (I suspect it's partially linked to his quitting of smoking in 2011), as his voice has only become more melodic and emotionally expressive, yet still carrying the air of weary, sad maturity that has permeated every album. To put it another way, this is probably the closest Berninger has come to Nick Cave levels of vocal prowess, and while I can't quite say he's there, he's only a few steps below (which really is a high compliment indeed).

And the instrumentation and production are incredibly solid across the board as well. This is a band that knows how to use swelling instrumentation and crescendos well, and the subtle hints of strings managed to send chills down my spine whenever they came into the mix. And despite the fact that this album has tighter instrumentation, that doesn't mean by any stretch of the mind that it doesn't get loud. On the contrary - I was actually surprised how many harder and louder indie rock songs The National pulled from this album, which operate well to keep the pace up. And the balancing in the mix is superb, and while we never quite see any moments of outright instrumental excellence (outside of those surprise strings, obviously), I'd argue that the more lyric-centered music of The National justifies that choice entirely. 

So what about these lyrics? Well, once again The National return to focus on the sad lonely guy whose life is in varying stages of falling apart - and once again, Berninger is smart enough to start right out of the gate by framing the fact that most (if not all of the time) it is the guy's own fault. The breakup he's regretful about in 'I Should Live In Salt' was one he triggered because he was a nitpicking ass, and 'living in salt' is his self-prescribed penance, the salt irritating and inflaming wounds just like he did in the relationship. 'Fireproof' is directed at a girl who turned down our narrator because she has higher standards, and at the end of the song, Berninger makes the sad admonition that he wishes he was the same (not one of the better songs, but still pretty damn good).  'This Is The Last Time' flips that dynamic, with the narrator trying to avoid a girl who he knows is shallow and vapid and not on his level, but when she calls, he comes running even as he lies to himself and says it'll be the last time. 'I Need My Girl' actually focuses on an intact relationship, but shows how in her absence, the narrator feels distinctly out of his depth and keeps making mistake after mistake. And 'Pink Rabbits' might just be the most direct assault of all, with a long-lost girl coming back into the narrator's life to only laugh at him after a fight in the rain, and he doesn't understand why she'd care about him, considering she never got the complete picture of him - mostly because when they were together, they only ever focused on her, which meant the relationship was inherently unhealthy and unbalanced, and the song treats it like that.

But then again, avoiding relationships doesn't seem to work out well for our narrator either. 'Sea Of Love' is more complex, as the girl in this song apparently loved the narrator, but never actually told him and thus he went off with someone else, and now he and 'Jo' encounter each other at a party and he fears everything is going to go wrong because he might exploit her love, even here. And 'Graceless' talks about a guy trying to be smooth and optimistic when meeting new people/girls, but without his girlfriend out his side, he feels he can't break the ice in the same way (or, 'There's a science to walking through windows without you' - damn, that's a great line). 'Slipped' tries something different, as the narrator claims to be a corporate sellout working in Dallas, and when a girl from his past (who left because she hated the city) talks with him, he admits he'll never be who she wants him to be. It's really heartbreaking because it's clear she wants him to be that dreamer again, but he's condemned those back to 'skeletons in his closet', trapped dreams that are slowly killing him.

But that's not the only thing that's killing our hapless narrator in these songs. 'Don't Swallow The Cap' is a harrowing, conflicted song about drug abuse, while 'Humiliation' seems to take the route of the narrator (who self-describes a wannabe rock star who never gets there) losing his job, getting sloshed, and having sex with a prostitute in L.A., and yet the prostitute tells him to stop feeling sorry for himself because he is better off, something he never even realized. The strangest song on the album is 'Heavenfaced', which seems to tell the tale of a girl whose family believes in the upcoming Rapture (yes, that one), but are blinded by their own self-righteousness and the narrator knows that you need humility to get to Heaven. And yet the narrator, who doesn't seem to ascribe to their faith, is content to stay inside, get high, and love this girl quietly, hoping it's enough to save his soul if the Rapture does come. Definitely one of the more interesting concepts The National have ever played with, and not one I can say has been explored often.

All of this comes together to form a series of vignettes with a very clear central premise that matches the title: whoever and whatever this narrator does, trouble will find him. Relationships will end, he will do something stupid and mess things up, or the Rapture might come and leave him behind - whatever it is, something is going to go wrong (no wonder George R.R. Martin got them to cover that song for Game Of Thrones). And to tie things together, the album ends with 'Hard To Find', which is the narrator's quiet admission of his failures, and saying while he wished things could have worked out better, he's okay with where they are now. Things might go wrong, he's still waiting for the one, but he knows times will get better, and anyone who says otherwise can just 'kiss off into the air'.

If you can't tell by now, I absolutely adore this album, and those of you who are most astute can probably guess why: on a level of thematic tone, this album is very similar to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Push The Sky Away, another record acknowledging the world is dark and the more humanity discovers the less we actually know (not like we ever want to tell ourselves that) and yet ends on a message that we have to keep on pushing, to 'push the sky away'. Trouble Will Find Me is a much more intimate piece, but shares the same basic tonal progression and parallel themes. And yet, I don't quite think The National's album is quite as strong as Push The Sky Away, mostly because the songwriting just isn't there in the same way and the closing track 'Hard To Find' doesn't quite stick the landing. 

But don't get me wrong, it's a hell of a great album to be compared with one of my biggest contenders for Best Album of 2013, and Trouble Will Find Me by The National is more than worth your time. It's intelligent, gripping, sublimely beautiful, and genuinely dramatic without becoming melodrama, and I highly, highly recommend you check it out. Trust me, you won't be disappointed.

As for Mumford & Sons... they wish they could reach this high.

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