When his wife Joy Davidson died after three years of marriage, C.S. Lewis recorded his grief in a series of journals, published pseudonymously in the early 1960s. In the fourth and final diary dedicated to the subject, Lewis wrote on the immensity of his theme and the depths of its reach. “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow” he reflected. “Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state, but a process.”
The quote came to mind in May 2013, when The National set up their instruments in New York’s MoMA PS1 gallery and proceeded to play the same song – High Violet’s Sorrow – for six hours straight. Over and over and over they struck up the same beat, the same chords, the same sadness, as if picking a scab or etching a deeper and deeper trench. More than 100 times, vocalist Matt Berninger repeated his weary mantra: “Sorrow found me when I was young / sorrow waited, sorrow won.”
A fortnight later, Trouble Will Find Me was released. You don’t have to dig deep to hear echoes of that same stinging emotion, with Berninger intoning “I didn’t ask for this pain / it just came over me” on Pink Rabbits; declaring “I do not know what is wrong with me / the sour is in the cut” on Graceless; threatening “If you lose me, I’m gonna die” on Heavenfaced; and so forth. It seems that, whatever the intentions of the Sorrow-full marathon, scouring the slate wasn’t among them, with familiar themes revisited across the album: regret, self-doubt and melancholia, but also hope, tenderness and lust.
But then The National have always been a band of subtle revelations, with each new release a refinement of the last rather than a sudden shift in gears. Their sixth album sticks to this tradition: it softens its immediate predecessor’s more brazenly anthemic urges, but retains – perfects, even – the core qualities that have brought them to this point. The results are understated but profoundly impactful – see, for instance, the shimmering guitar that climaxes I Should Live In Salt’s penitent pleas, or the way Berninger’s baritone is buffeted by Bryan Devendorf’s pitter-patter drums in Demons’s one line chorus. Despite confessions of awkwardness and discomfort in the lyrics, Trouble… is the sound of a band with confidence in spades, and the courage to keep picking at the things that hurt to see what’s underneath.
[originally written for The Skinny]