Recently the National performed their song Sorrow for six hours straight as part of a sonic installation at New York’s MoMA. Three-hundred and sixty minutes of sorrow. A cynic says, that sounds like three stock concerts by the National to me.
Singer-lyricist Matt Berninger might smile, might agree. Then he might sing Demons, off Trouble Will Find Me, the National’s graceful turning point and excellent new album. There’s the line “I’m going through an awkward phase,” which will raise a grin to those who know about the man and his perpetual insecurities. More importantly, the song is an embrace by Berninger of his own darkness – “It’s become the crux of me / I wish that I could rise above it, but I stay down with my demons.”
So, Berninger is finally comfortable. And perhaps the band – a serious-minded quintet that includes two sets of brothers on all instruments – has followed his lead. There is a growth and liberation to Trouble Will Find Me, an album that sounds like the National, but isn’t completely tied down to the melodic drone-rock that had become a bit too samey for some. There is understated lushness, occasional sentimentality, tense relaxation, new-wave recollections, a flow-with-it undertow and a variance in beats and song-to-song style.
With the breakout success of 2010’s High Violet, the satisfying Brooklyn-based murmur-workers had reached a place they long strove for. “I feel like for the past 10 years we’d been chasing something, wanting to prove something,” Berninger told an interviewer recently. “Early on we were labelled as alt-country, sleepy miserablists, and that stung, especially because it was partly true. So for a long time, we were motivated in our songwriting to prove that wrong.”
And now the National can relax, not needing to verify their identity any more.
Not that Trouble Will Find Me is free-wheeling and sunshine. Lyrics are marked by wry contemplations on mortality. Humiliation is hazy and organ drenched, with an insistent drum beat that runs in place rather than moving things along. The poignant Heavenfaced knock, knock, knocks on Dylan’s and U2’s door. It’s the National in their most beautiful moves yet, with Berninger rising to a register his throat hadn’t known before.
The album closes with the spare hum of Hard to Find. “I can see the glowing lights,” it begins, “I can see them every night, really not that far away …” It’s a song about held memories and a past young love – “There’s a lot I’ve not forgotten, but I let go of other things.”
Letting go, moving on. The National does it.
MORE NEW RELEASES
- Cotton Mouth Man
- James Cotton
“James Cotton was there.” That the veteran mouth-harp wailer has lived the history of post-war blues is the through-line of an album featuring the man’s still lively reed work. A throat cancer survivor, Cotton can’t sing worth a damn any longer, but he still has some mouth on him. The album is a tribute – an electric dinner, with boogie and testimony and shuffles and stories. Keb Mo, Warren Haynes, Darrell Nulisch and a weak Gregg Allman sing for and about the man. Chuck Leavell is a consistent bringer here, on keys and organs. The coda Bonnie Blue has Cotton whispering his croaky-voiced “hometown blues,” a nod to Mississippi and himself. Clap for him. – Brad Wheeler
- Natalie Maines
Unlike some singers, Natalie Maine is less interested in wowing listeners with her voice than with conveying the heart of a lyric. And while that generates some powerful performances on her first solo album, it also leads this once-and-future Dixie Chick down some strange side roads. She rebuilds Patty Griffin’s motel epic Silver Bell into a gothic ramble that nearly out-menaces Hotel California and makes the most of the Ben Harper band’s blues savvy on the hard-chugging Trained. But the title tune (from Pink Floyd’s The Wall ) so vividly conveys Roger Waters’ male boomer angst that it’s hard to know whether to be impressed, or slightly disturbed. – J.D. Considine
- Old Tomorrow
Do we really need to know that this curious, gorgeous album of orchestral roots styles was recorded in a geodesic dome on B.C.’s Quadra Island? Maybe. And that the songs were inspired by the study of lunar cycles and knitting patterns? I think that’s good info. We’re talking about structure – the seemingly lightweight constructions of Corwin Fox and Emily Millard, who plaintively offer songs on shapes meeting ( The Roots of Love ) and on John A. Macdonald and nation-tying (the calmly plucked waltz Old Tomorrow ). This is music craft of honeycomb strength, on weaves and waves, rhythms and harmonies, architecture and human destinies – “spinning substance out of nothingness.” And yes, it all comes together in the end. – B.W.
- Johannes Brahms: Clarinet Quintet; String Quartet, Op. 51, No. 2 in A minor
- Jerusalem Quartet and Sharon Kam, clarinet
- Harmonia mundi
Sharon Kam and the Jerusalem Quartet give us a lyrical interpretation of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet, making serenity a base point from which more urgent utterances arise and rather quickly subside. The first movement, for instance, has a relaxed breadth that also pervades the last movement, since some of its material returns at the end of the piece and moments of intensity occur without ever feeling like raisons d’être. Similarly, Kam stretches out the sextuplets in the adagio – pinning those quixotic melodic flourishes to the harmonic progression instead of floating them between individual chords. This stabilizes what is often played more whimsically and the ensuing climax is the richer for it. The Jerusalem Quartet’s mellow support tends to facilitate rather than enhance: There are many spots where an individual voice could be much more articulate or forceful. – Elissa Poole