They're not fun, exciting, infectious or advisable for (most) bar jukeboxes. They're probably not something you'd put on your phone before you go running. They're not sexy. They're not happy. But opposites are not always the answer, and so it's important to assert that the National is not sad. At least, I don't listen to the National to feel sad.
To me, the National is about feeling emotion for the sake of reminding yourself that you can, about recognizing how to appreciate it without quite giving yourself over to weeping. Lead vocalist Matt Berninger's baritone remains placid and unhurried, but his lyrics speak to someone convincing himself that the person who speaks the loudest isn't necessarily saying anything important. You wouldn't know it by his tone, but he feels.
Amidst the categorical gloom of "Trouble Will Find Me," released May 21, 2013 on 4AD, are moments of graceful clarity starting with Aaron Dessner's warm and substantial keyboard melodies and gliding into Bryce Dessner's classically-influenced guitar, particularly the hopeful chords on "Slipped" and "Hard To Find." The melancholy the National are so often accused of creating is lifted by subtle vocal harmonies and Bryan Devendorf's drums, which range from a whisper to the slithery percussion of "Fireproof" and, on "Sea of Love," are restrainedly reminiscent of "Squalor Victoria" from 2007's acclaimed album "The Boxer."
The obvious hallmarks of the National are Berninger and his lyrics, though, and on "Trouble Will Find Me," they walk the line between malaise and the kind of harmless contemplation that leads strangers to ask you if you're upset about something. Berninger's voice is morose but his words are sensitive, and even his arch tones are gently chiding rather than vituperative, as if to say "I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed."
Berninger is not overly emotional, which is what prevents his songs from being the kind of thing you listen to when you want to feel sorry for yourself. They're sincere, but his sentiments are underlined with sardonic self-deprecation. In "I Should Live in Salt," he scolds a lover by telling her "don't make me read your mind, you should know me better than that," because, admittedly, "it takes me too much time, you should know me better than that." The follow-up to this track is "Demons," where Berninger frankly owns up to (while downplaying as a phase) his issues by stating "I can't fight it anymore, I'm going through an awkward phase...I don't know what's wrong with me." He is aware that he is difficult to interpret and probably just as hard to like, the duality of what he feels and how he acts explained in "Don't Swallow the Cap" with "everything I love is on the table, everything I love is hard to see."
"Trouble Will Find Me" is stylistically similar to previous albums (2005's "Alligator," "The Boxer" and 2009's "High Violet") so if you're wondering if the band is up to anything new, the answer is no. The National doesn't appear to want to deviate from their original plans, and while I can see how a listener can be frustrated with this assumed lack of progress, I think the National's sound is more of a reliable trademark than a disavowal of capability.
It's said that people who classify themselves as extroverts are actually introverts who are just trying harder to speak up, and that people who classify themselves as introverts are actually extroverts just trying to shut the hell up for once.
The National may not be everyone's idea of fun and will probably never cop to extroversion, and not every song can be a "Bloodbuzz Ohio" or "Blank Slate," but one of these days -- and not for the worst -- the subtleties of their nature could betray them.