Remote and reserved, the National has never been a crowd-pleaser, with an aesthetic favoring prickly lyricism and unadorned musicianship, the flashiness and hooks kept to a bare minimum. Yet despite these reticent qualities, the group has always been accessible, their stoicism belying a low-key, neurotic charm, anchored by the quiet bluster of frontman Matt Berninger’s lyrics, which explore disillusionment and self-doubt with consistently wry flatness. However, even with their brushes with mainstream success, the band seems increasingly intent on guarding their mystique rather than developing it, issuing another aloof album that will likely further narrow their appeal.
Trouble Will Find Me arrives as the end result of a years-long process; each effort since their 2005 breakthrough, Alligator, has been leaner and more taciturn than the last. The similarity between songs and static pacing that made many condemn 2007’s Boxer have only become more ingrained, and by now it’s clear that this is less a weakness than a stylistic choice, granting the music a drugged, somnolent feel. It’s a tone that certainly suits accounts of suburban ennui like “Humiliation,” which skirts surrealism while remaining rooted in the real world via Berninger’s serious delivery, or lead single “Demons,” in which the singer masterfully rhymes an entire line with a single exasperated “fuck.”
Still, despite the overall solidness of the presentation, there’s not a lot to latch onto here. The band has pared down the lyricism into something beguilingly simplistic, dropping the character sketches and developed structures for a system of detached couplets, free-floating images, and goofy bon mots. Rife with repetition, these lyrical passages are suspended within languid, often unexpressive rock, which limits the climactic moments to some tinkling piano keys, skittering snare drum, or an ominous cello yawn.
It’s a style that feels like a definitive dead end, which leads to questions of where the National will take their sound next. If they’re to be believed, the planned follow-up to Trouble Will Find Me is a relative lark, in which they’ll release their recent MoMA PS1 art-installation set, a six-hour-long version of High Violet’s “Sorrow.” Whatever the future holds, the National has definitely entrenched themselves in a style that requires some level of endurance to appreciate; few bands are so unwelcoming and unambitious at the same time. So while Trouble Will Find Me remains well crafted and satisfying, there’s something inherently stultifying about it as well.