Monday, May 27, 2013

When a Disappointing Album Is More Than a Disappointing Album: A Review of The National's "Trouble Will Find Me"

Hello loyal reader(s). In the past few years, the expectation (largely aided by the staff here at Mitchfork) has been that we only produce a single post a year, our "Year in Music." However, we're breaking form here, so let us explain.

A decade ago, back when Mitchfork was a freshman in college, we hadn't heard of the publication that would eventually rhyme with our name. In fact, we hadn't even listened to many of the bands that now define our music tastes and, to a certain extent, our cultural persona. That all changed over the next few years, when a series of bands (introduced to us by kind, knowledgeable friends) fundamentally altered the way we approached music. Rather than casually consuming catchy pop singles, we allowed songs and albums to sink deep into our marrow and leave enduring impressions. Our inner life, the place where we interpreted meaning, became increasingly influenced by the music we were obsessed with that month and, as time passed, the major events in our young life became indelibly intertwined with the bands and songs we were breathlessly listening to at that time. For example, we remember the exact moment the first notes of Interpol's "Untitled" hit our ears, the way our eyes widened and our pulse picked up. Music became a necessary complement to our existence, enriching many of our formative experiences and heightening our senses.

But, what does that indulgent paragraph have to do with why we're writing this post and addressing The National's latest album? First, let us expound a little further. What happened to that same boundless passion we felt for music, the profound role the act of discovery had in our emotional life? It has steadily diminished after those first few breakneck years, not noticeable at first, but more and more tangible as our ardent adolescence emerged clearly in our rear-view mirror. There used to be dozens of albums we wanted to gush about every year. Then there were several. Now there are, if we're lucky, a couple standouts we want to promote. Why is this? After some thoughts, we have decided there are several reasons, in no particular order of importance. 

Reason #1: We've Exhausted the Genre of Indie Rock/It's Exhausted Us

When we say "music," we really mean the giant umbrella of indie rock and all the varied punk, folk, pop and electronica it encompasses. That said, there is only a finite amount of bands to choose from, and after a decade of voraciously devouring hundreds and hundreds of albums, it's safe to say that the available options aren't as plentiful or as impressive as they once were. There are only so many great bands, and it's perfectly possible that some of our fatigue is the result of lacking new music to replace that which we've already burnt out on. 

Furthermore, it wouldn't be a stretch to posit the thesis that, over the past decade, the genre as a whole has stagnated to a certain extent. Some of this might have to do with its rise in popularity, encouraging less innovation and more imitation, but it does seem like fewer and fewer bands since the 1990's have been able to leverage their influences into something approaching a definitive sound. This may be an issue throughout pop music in the 21st century, but that's an argument for another time.

Reason #2: We're Older and Our Hearts Don't Beat So Fast Anymore

It's not blasphemous to say that a large part of our expansive passion for music as a young person was due to the fact that we were extremely fired up about everything in our life. The thrill of the new, combined with our juvenile hormones and our carefree, unstructured lives all conspired to make us particularly receptive to the articulate, angst-ridden musings of those who also happened to be particularly adept at constructing pop songs. Don't get us wrong, those same tracks still sound just as good now as they did then; they just don't move us in quite the same way. They're familiar, well-worn psalms, and there's nothing we can do to reignite our senses in regards to them. 

Reason #3: The Best Days of Our Favorite Bands/Artists Are Behind Them

Just as our appreciation for music was picking up speed a decade ago, many of our favorite bands were just coming into their own and releasing their definitive albums. It would be unreasonable to expect their level of creativity/production to remain at an elite level over this extended amount of time, and the truth is that it largely hasn't. 

Bloc Party, Death Cab for Cutie, Interpol, The Strokes, The Shins, Iron & Wine, The Killers and The Decemberists are examples of bands for whom each successive album has been more disappointing than the last -- reflecting either a creative exhaustion or a need to escape from the sound that once defined them.

Others like Wolf Parade and Broken Social Scene have quasi-disbanded as the members pursue side projects, effectively putting their future output in jeopardy. And while we still anticipate the next Sufjan album, we have no idea what to expect from that mad hatter. There are no more great B-sides to dig up from Elliott Smith's catalog, and it's been over six years since Modest Mouse has released a full-length album. Even Radiohead, with their sterling record of innovation and excellence, essentially mailed in The King of Limbs. Maybe rock music is just a young man's game after all, because it appears in many cases like the ambition just isn't there anymore. 

Where does this leave us? Well, with The National, who, along with Arcade Fire, we considered to be our two favorite bands of the past several years. Arcade Fire are expected to release their fourth full-length later this year, and we've felt that the case could be made that each of their past three albums is just as good if not better than those before it. Fingers crossed this trend continues, especially because Trouble Will Find Me just hasn't delivered the goods. 

It pains us to say this, but this disappointment is partly the result of the impossibly high expectations Matt Berninger and the boys have created for themselves thanks to their past successes. It's an especially acute dissatisfaction because, due to all the reasons listed above, we really were hoping The National's sixth album would maintain their signature sound while breaking new ground (a la Radiohead). They certainly did the former, but the result was an LP that feels exceptionally staid (even for The National) and a bit stale. 

All the hallmarks of The National's previous work can be found on Trouble Will Find Me -- these are immaculately constructed, artfully subdued songs from masters of their craft. Berninger's voice sounds better than ever (he stopped smoking in 2011 and it shows), and his lyrics are tantalizing oblique as always. The issue though is that we feel like we've heard it all before, and it was a little more lively the first time. As they've aged, the restraint that usually worked for the band is starting to constrict their music -- many of these songs sound nuanced and layered, but the residue they leave behind is minimal.

The only standout track is "Don't Swallow the Cap," a tense and plaintive song whose highlights are Berninger's gorgeous chorus and Bryan Devendorf's always stellar drumming. If it reminds the listener of Boxer standout "Brainy," then the next song "Fireproof" echoes "Racing Like a Pro," another Mitchfork favorite. Beyond those two tracks though lies a series of songs without any real highs or lows. This is despite the best efforts of "Sea of Love" and "Graceless," both of which appear to have the potential to break out as anthems, but end up falling short in a way similar songs from the band would not have in the past.

Trouble Will Find Me, truth be told, brings to mind a band slowing fading into middle age, sanding off the rough corners and settling into a comfort zone. It's perfectly pleasant, with a few memorable peaks, but those moments only serve to remind us of previous albums (Alligator in particular), where they were more plentiful. Even as the band's embraced a measured sound, it always felt like they were exploring new ground. For the first time, we can't say that's the case. 

Now, back to Mitchfork and putting Trouble Will Find Me in the larger context of how our music listening has evolved over the years. There are still plenty of good bands out there, and we don't suspect we'll be quitting music or indie rock anytime soon. However, this post does indicate an increasing acceptance of the inevitable end of Mitchfork in the near future. Although it's only been around for five years and Mitchfork is composed of just several sprawling posts, this blog is an online manifestation of the lingering passion we still feel when proselytizing the merits of truly great music. Perhaps it will be this year, or maybe next, but the writing is on the wall. 

That said, while it is becoming more and more difficult to amass a year-end list of memorable music, the existence of songs like "Don't Swallow the Cap" continue to make the search worthwhile. Moreover, while our hearts might not flutter as they once did, the imprint the music has left on us will remain.

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