How have Brooklyn's gloomiest reacted to becoming a big deal? With their most personal album yet
“When I walk into a room, I do not light it up. FUCK”. That’s Matt Berninger, The National’s lead singer, either mocking his reputation as spokesperson for the dark reality of modern life or, as he puts it on ‘Trouble Will Find Me’’s lead single ‘Demons’, going through another “awkward phase”. After five albums of angst, heartbreak and social inadequacy, The National are no closer to finding peace.
It’s understandable, given that 2010’s ‘High Violet’ launched them far away from cult heroes and closer to a band with arena-filling potential, that an uneasy sense of expectation runs through their sixth album. Their previous three – ‘Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers’, ‘Alligator’ and ‘Boxer’ – saw them reach a level of recognition that had seemed unimaginable at the time of 2001’s self-titled debut, which was a rudimentary mish-mash of folk balladry and unhinged rock.
But the quintet have grown out of Brooklyn’s back rooms – even catching the ear of Barack Obama, who invited them to play at rallies for both of his presidential campaigns – and the music has grown with them. ‘Trouble…’ is a collection of anthems, full of rich orchestral fanfares, bolstered by the cast and crew of New York’s finest. The highlights are St Vincent (on ‘Humiliation’) and Sharon Van Etten, whose velvet vocals counterbalance Berninger’s baritone throughout. Whereas The National’s previous work was a commentary on modern life, this is a soundtrack for the big screen.
The increased spotlight has affected the lyrics too. Berninger’s poetic prose has always cast him as a latter-day Morrissey. But while the temptation might be to recoil into metaphor as the inner workings of your head are analysed by a mainstream audience, this is The National’s most emotionally open album yet. From ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’’s insomnia-induced paranoia about dying and leaving your children behind to being in a relationship with someone who’s emotionally ‘Fireproof’, at times it feels like voyeurism to listen to it. Buried at the end is ‘Pink Rabbits’, the band’s greatest love song to date, which sees Berninger’s vocals shifted higher and backed by an instrumental chorus that lilts from one morose thrum to another. “You didn’t see me I was falling apart”, he coos. “I was a television version of a person with a broken heart”. They’re love songs that revel in the beauty and banality of adult relationships.
Detractors will say making music about the minutiae of your own problems is dull or self-indulgent. But for The National’s devotees it’s the simple fact that their music evokes stories and scenarios that could happen to any of us that’s so seductive. They have pulled off another album for the modern age, and its stories live in all of us.