Trouble Will Find Me is the sixth studio album from Ohio-turned-Brooklyn band The National, and it delivers all the starry complexity, gut-wrenching self-doubt, and bland symphonic musicality that we've grown to expect from this monumental group. The driving force behind the record, frontman Matt Beninger's lush, self-deprecating poetry, is a weight that makes the journey valuable, and simultaneously threatens to sink the ship we've boarded with him.
But what a beautiful weight it is.
The album has several themes, the most prominent being ambivalence about leaving (the ageless question of "Should I stay or should I go?"). In almost every track, Berninger expresses this conflict, starting with opener "I Should Live In Salt," a song about Matt's tense and guilt-ridden relationship with his brother Tom. The title line "I should live in salt for leaving you behind" may be a reference to the Biblical story of Lot's wife, who turned into a pillar of salt as punishment for looking back at the burning city of Sodom, or an allusion to the preservation of something dead, or possibly to rubbing salt on an open wound. Later, in "Sea of Love," he sings, "Can't stay here anymore / We're turning into thieves / If I stay here trouble will find me / If I stay here I'll never leave," and on "Heavenfaced," the struggle continues: "I could walk out, but I won't / In my mind I am in your arms / I wish someone would take my place." We're not entirely sure what it is they're walking away from, but whatever it is, it's got enough magnetism to put up a fight.
The salt metaphor is an example of Berninger's talent for writing lines bursting with symbolism (which his devoted fans scramble to interpret, footnotes and all). The combination of religiously symbolic motifs (salt, water, fire, heaven, demons) and concrete details ground his poetry in a continuous ebb and flow of meaning. "Don't Swallow The Cap" - possibly a reference to Tennessee Williams, who died when he accidentally swallowed the cap to a bottle of eye drops - details late-night anxiety and the desire for comfort, first in grandiose terms, "I can hardly stand upright / Hit my head upon the light / I have faith but don't believe you / This love ain't enough to leave you," and then with the vulnerably personal line, "And if you want to see me cry / Play 'Let It Be' or 'Nevermind.'"
Then there's "This Is The Last Time," which has equal likelihood of being a breakup, addiction, or suicide song (I'm thinking of it as The National's version of "Last Dance With Mary Jane"). One of the most powerful and heart-chilling songs they've ever written, it starts with "Don't tell anyone I'm here / I've got Tylenol and beer," an almost gimmicky line setting the scene of a surreptitious late-night numbing session. By the end of the song, though, it's, "Oh, but your love is such a swamp / You don't think before you jump / And I said I wouldn't get sucked in / I won't be vacant anymore / I won't be waitin' anymore / Jenny, I am in trouble / Can't get these thoughts out of me / Jenny, I'm seeing double / I know this changes everything." And if reading those lyrics gives you shivers, just wait until you hear the orchestra of drowning desperation that goes along with them.
When he's not juxtaposing biblical symbols with acetaminophen brands, Berninger hits us with a solid stream of clever poetry, even in the span of one or two lines (from "Graceless": "All of my thoughts of you / Bullets through rotten fruit"), and is always backed up in warm, sweeping walls of sound. The National has always incorporated swaths of piano and strings seamlessly into their guitar-driven country, and this effort continues their ever-maturing orchestration. The dynamics of the songs remain staid, sometimes bordering on lethargic, but what they lack in musical intensity and variety, they make up for in naked confessions and brooding steadiness. Perhaps it is the stability of the music that allows us to properly meditate on their often hair-raising words.
"I'm having trouble inside my skin / Trying to keep my skeletons in," sings Berninger in "Slipped" in a stark summation of this record's subject matter. The National is anything but comfortable. They assure us that a middle-aged man can still be "going through an awkward phase" (as they admit in "Demons"), still feel "smaller and smaller" without his lover (in "I Need My Girl"), still be afraid of being "a television version of a person with a broken heart" ("Pink Rabbits"). The dark lullaby of Trouble Will Find Me may pull you under the sea, but it brings you up for air just when you need it most. And that's a ride we're willing to take with them.