Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call
Released March 3rd, 1997 on Mute Records
Nick Cave is easily one of the most enduring artists in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. In the 1980s he staked his name on crawling, disturbing post-punk that encapsulated the violence and Biblical darkness of a mythologized American South (this despite growing up in Australia and basing himself out of England). From 1994’s Let Love In onward, he tempered the abrasive potentials of his songs with a renewed focus on texture, including piano and gentler tempos. Despite this, both it and 1996’s classic Murder Ballads reveled in the darkness, spiking moody atmospheres with moments of bone-chilling terror and loud musical moments. The Boatman’s Call, then, is an anomaly in his catalog. Everything before and after is shot through with darkness, full of revenge, murder, and sinners in the hands of an angry God. While 2001’s …And No More Shall We Part continued on with the exploration of gentler tones, The Boatman’s Call is also a musing exploration of spirituality and love.
“I’ve felt you coming girl, as you drew near,” he sings on “Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?”, “I knew you’d find me, cause I longed you here.” This is a somewhat atypical Nick Cave lyric. Also atypical is “Just like a bird that sings up the sun / In a dawn so very dark / such is my faith for you,” the opening line from “There Is A Kingdom”, a song that feels as New Testament as Cave’s other work is Old Testament. “West Country Girl”, “Black Hair”, and “Into My Arms” are all about PJ Harvey, whom Cave dated briefly in the middle of the Nineties. “Into My Arms” was also performed at Michael Hutchence’s funeral (after Cave requested the cameras be shut off, so don’t go looking for footage). It’s also the wedding song of my wife and I; it was originally going to be “Have I Told You Lately” before we remembered that latter-day Rod Stewart sucks.
That said, there are a couple of songs on The Boatman’s Call which can be considered more standard fare for Nick Cave. “People Ain’t No Good” walks that careful line between love and death that is familiar for Cave fans (and also found it’s way into Shrek 2 somehow); “Lime Tree Arbour” straddles that same line, although in that case it’s love protecting Cave from death rather than the other way around. “Idiot Prayer” is also about dying, although there’s a firm sense of fatality that accompanies the line “If you’re in Hell, then what can I say / You probably deserved it anyway / I guess I’m gonna find out any day / For we’ll meet again / And there’ll be Hell to pay.” The real summation of the album – and perhaps Cave’s career as a whole – comes on the final song, “I Got You Bad”. “Babe I got you bad / Dreaming blood-wet dreams / Only madmen have / Baby I got you bad.”
Special Friday Edition!
Friday is the day on /r/music where the mods like to turn off the ability to post YouTube videos in the hopes of the subreddit actually becoming one for music discussion and not, say, where Reddit likes to dump it’s garbage fire taste in music. Ha. Ha ha. Well, they try, that’s the important thing.
If you tuned in yesterday, you’ll get the basic gist: I take a look at the top ten songs posted on /r/music in the last 24 hours and tell you how terrible Reddit’s taste in music is. In much rarer occasions, I’ll tell you where they get it right. Fridays will be fun because of the phenomenon mentioned above: it’s going to be a collection of those songs with the staying power to make it through the discussion posts.
Also, for the record, no I don’t plan on this being an everyday thing, but I would like it to be an everyday I can manage it thing.
June 2nd, 2016 (12:30 PM) to June 3rd, 2016 (12:30 PM)
#1: Mr. Bungle – “Air Conditioned Nightmare”
Reddit manages to kick it off with something weird and cool, courtesy of Mike “Weird and Cool” Patton. Goes through four different changes in tone and structure, each completely different than the one before. In anyone else’s hands, it would be a gigantic mess, but Mike Patton isn’t anyone else.
#2: Dinosaur Jr. – “Feel The Pain”
Sirius XMU’s favourite Dinosaur, Jr track is also Reddit’s most commonly posted DJ song. Thankfully it never gets old, although I’ve heard it three times today between the radio and this particular set. Two good tracks in a row, Reddit, maybe Fridays are your thing.
#3: Beck – “Wow”
Ah, the new Beck track. The one that starts off like a generic hip hop beat, or maybe something like what Beyonce might have rejected for her self-titled 2013 album. Then Beck manages to bull through it in a display of sheer Beck-ness. Still, it feels a little empty and it’s not until 2/3 of the way through that Beck lets his freak flag fly in even a limited fashion. Honestly it feels a little like Beck chasing a hit and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Holding out opinions for the album, we’ll see.
#4: The Cult – “Love Removal Machine”
The Cult were an Eighties goth band that scored some hits when they decided to be an AC/DC tribute band instead. My mom knew the lead singer in high school at one point, to no one’s surprise he was a dick. Trust Reddit to go ga-ga for generic hard rock because “it has guitars”.
#5: A Day To Remember – “Bad Vibrations”
Why do metalcore bands have such fucking awful band names? Why do metalcore bands all recycle the same damn low-end chugging? Why do metalcore bands mistake sung choruses for depth? Why do metalcore bands insist on breakdowns that are cheesier than a Wisconsin hamburger?
Anyway, you can always tell when the pre-teens are posting, because there will be metalcore.
#6: The Monkees – “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster”
Okay, show of hands. Who was crying out for a Monkees comeback? Anyone? Put your hand down, dad, Jesus Christ. Wait, this is actually sort of good. I…I kind of like this. Noel Gallagher co-wrote it? I suppose that explains some things.
#7: Portugal. The Man – “Plastic Soldiers”
Who gave the indie kids access to the internet? They managed to find a Portugal. The Man track that isn’t all that great. It’s about as middling a work as you can find from a middling also-ran indie act. You thought you were doing something good, but instead you fucked it all up. Good work, Reddit.
#8: Soundgarden – “Rusty Cage”
The rest of the post title literally reads: “I know this has been posted before, but not for months & I think it’s well worth posting again.” Oh, well, I guess that makes sense except wait IT WAS LITERALLY POSTED YESTERDAY AS THE JOHNNY CASH COVER.
Who are you trying to fool, anyway? We all know where the inspiration to post this came from.
Decent tune though.
#9: Link Wray – “Rumble”
Link Wray poked a hole in his speaker cone with a pencil and invented hard rock single-handed. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. Reddit of course knows it from its multiple pop cultural appearances, including Tarantino. At least it’s better than just posting the songs from Guitar Hero .
#10: Joywave – “Nice House”
Lyrics are the only really halfway interesting part of this song, the rest is a really generic and straightforward electro-pop song, like what Hot Chip would write if they got really, really boring all of a sudden. The outro is rather nice though.
TODAY’S AVERAGE: B- (Not bad, Reddit!)
Destroyer – Poison Season
It’s been a long, long time since City Of Daughters, the first of Dan Bejar’s Destroyer albums to achieve wider distribution and recognition. Back then, in those heady days of 1998, he was the poet laureate of drinking in the park, a dissolute and languid lover scribbling guitar sketches of love for various women and hatred for the record industry. Since then he’s found a permanent place as the resident poet of the New Pornographers and slowly grown his image, developmentally and chronologically. He switched the mickey-in-a-paper-bag for fine bourbon, the ripped jeans for a crisp white linen suit, and the song-sketches for fully-realized instrumental smorgasbords. The density of his poetry developed alongside; by the time Destroyer’s Rubies came along in 2006, he was the poet laureate of the modern singer-songwriter.
Then came 2011 and Kaputt. At first the concept seemed absurd: it was an album deeply indebted to disco rhythms and the sounds of the early 1980s. It was, as both detractors and champions pointed out, the purest expression of yacht-rock that you could find. Despite its dubious influences, it worked amazingly well, garnering stellar reviews and numerous spots on year-end lists. The wider fame generated by the success of Kaputt also made Bejar more uncomfortable; having spent fifteen years taking potshots at the record industry,being caught up in it proved to be just as depressing as he’d imagined. This discomfort with the trappings of newfound fame explains both the four-year wait for Poison Season and the change in sound.
Poison Season is not a yacht-rock album. It is not a post-disco album. It is not a pop album, although Kaputt was never a strictly pop outing either. Instead, Poison Season is both a return and a progression. It’s a return to the sprawling singer-songwriter, the man in the open-chested white suit tickling the piano and singing literary songs of chasing lovers and lives. At the same time it’s much more than that. The sheer amount of instruments on any one given track can be overwhelming at times. It’s not just Bejar and a piano – it’s the piano, the strings, horns, dollops of full-throated saxophone, and a bit of guitar layered in for texture. On the two rockier tracks – “Dream Lover” and “Times Square” – it sounds uncommonly like the E Street Band before they left Asbury Park for the wider sounds of America. There’s a whiff of “Rosalita” and “Incident On 57th Street” here and there, although the Boss never went as fully chaotic as Bejar allows his band to go here. There are moments – like on the end of “Hell Is An Open Door” – where the songs descend into a maelstrom of instruments, furiously playing off of one another like a hurricane of sound. In the middle of it all, Bejar’s voice brings everything together, the anchor for the yacht in the middle of the fury.
If Kaputt was a (relatively) sunny album, a daytime album, Poison Season is the nighttime album. The yacht has docked and Bejar and Co. are playing on the beach to a crowd of well-heeled degenerates looking to party genteely until dawn. When dawn comes, it’s a surprise; “Oh shit, here comes the sun,” he gasps in surprise on the sax-drenched “Dream Lover”, and it’s a change from his previous embrace of the all-night escapade on “Here Comes The Nighttime”, from This Night. This is not an isolated self-reference, either; as usual, Bejar peppers his lyrics with backlinks to previous songs from Thief, This Night, and Your Blues. If you think you’ve heard a line before, you probably have, and it comes across as usual as a wink-and-nod to the people that have stuck with him across the wide gulf of years that separate drinking in the park from drinking at an open bar on a private beach.
If there’s a line that can sum up the feelings brought about by Poison Season, it’s “Bitter tears, bitter pills / it sucks when there’s nothing but gold in those hills”, from “Girl In A Sling”. That is to say, it may suck for Bejar to be cursed with a sense of style and flair that has proven popular, but for me listening it’s nothing less than triumphant. Destroyer will likely continue to be a popular unit, regardless of Bejar’s feelings on the matter, and for the rest of us that’s quite alright.
Tobias Jesso, Jr. – Goon
There’s going back and then there’s going back. Vancouver singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso, Jr. is firmly in the latter camp, reaching back four decades into the 1970s to dredge up the ghosts of Harry Nilson, Billy Joel, and Elton John’s less ornate moments. His lyrics are open and honest; there are no layers at work anywhere, no necessary dissection of words to find some kind of hidden snark or metaphor. Look at the simple statements of “Can We Still Be Friends”: “And then one night he arrives to your surprise / Someone let him in and all you can say is / “I know it’s not the same but I’m glad you came / Can we still be friends?”” “Hollywood” comes straight out of the plaintive side of the Seventies piano man spectrum, coming across as a doomed letter home from someone who’d run off to chase their dreams. “Can’t Stop Thinking About You” is about as direct a statement of longing and regret you’re likely to find in 2015.
The plainness and honesty extends to the music, as well. Jesso has spent most of his life on the guitar, and his piano skills are the kind that you develop after only a couple of years of practice. There’s very little that can be considered flashy or ornamental here – some strings here, a couple of vintage studio tricks there – and the starkness feels all the more refreshing in the digital age. Goon is an album for the odd-corner moments in your life – something to belt out while showering, or put on when company’s over, or maybe just to listen to in the dark with a glass of red wine while you wonder what ever happened to that girl that used to love you.
Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
Fear Fun, a great little nugget of psychedelic pop, established the character of Father John Misty: a dissipated lady’s man, a snide drunk who may or may not have a heart of gold, who spends his time getting debauched in and around a vicious satirical caricature of Los Angeles. The man behind the character, former Fleet Foxes drummer/harmonizer Josh Tillman, thought him up while high on mushrooms and altitude – of course, the fact that his eponymous solo albums had gone absolutely nowhere probably played a role in Father John’s creation as well. There’s always been a hazy border between who Tillman is and who Father John Misty is; the border got even hazier last year when Tillman announced that his second FJM album, I Love You, Honeybear, was “a concept album about a guy named Josh Tillman who spends quite a bit of time banging his head against walls, cultivating weak ties with strangers and generally avoiding intimacy at all costs. This all serves to fuel a version of himself that his self-loathing narcissism can deal with. We see him engaging in all manner of regrettable behavior.”
Even a cursory scan of the lyrics for I Love You, Honeybear will reveal that, given the themes of finding lasting love despite running away from intimacy whenever possible, Tillman is playing himself on a lot of these songs. He recently married photographer Emma Tillman, and it’s telling that the very first line of the impassioned “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins)” is in reference to her: “Emma eats bread and butter like a queen would eat ostrich and cobra wine”. “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me” carries on, briefly abandoning the wink and smirk of his narrative voice for a bare confession: “I can hardly believe I’ve found you and I’m terrified by that”. “Holy Shit” was written on his wedding day in an attempt to capture the craziness that was going on, and “I Went To The Store One Day” recounts the story of how they met, in the parking lot at the Laurel Canyon Store; he sketches out his vision of how they’ll grow old together, their life path entwined, and then brings it right back to the very moment they met. It’s wide-open sentimentality, a move that would seem schmaltzy if anyone else tried it; in Tillman’s hands, it’s powerful stuff, sure to make you go seek out the hands of the one you love so that you can refuse to ever let them go again.
Of course, it’s not all wide-eyed, long-lasting love on display here. The wasted lothario of Fear Fun shows up in spades, and when he does the results are always blackly hilarious. The face-palming one night stand of “The Night Josh Tillman Came To My Apt.” is easily the most caustic of these, featuring lines like “She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes / and the malaprops make me want to fucking scream / I wonder if she even knows what that word means / Well, it’s literally not that” and ends up with Tillman being more than obliging when she gets freaky in bed later and asks to be choked. “Strange Encounter” finds him panicking when another girl nearly dies in his house (presumably after hoovering up all of his drugs, like the girl in “The Night Josh Tillman Cam To My Apt.”) and ends with a bit of defensive petulance, “Yeah, I’m a decent person / little aimless”. “Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow” and “The Ideal Husband” bring out the belligerently drunk side of FJM; the former finds him savagely moving on a man trying to pick up his girlfriend, while the latter finds him crawling over every fault he can find in his own self-loathing before bursting in at seven in the morning blathering about subcumbing and wanting to knock the girl up. The height of this particular side of the album, of course, is lead single “Bored In The USA”, a stately, traditionally arranged piano ballad that spends four minutes skewering both the American Dream and the idea that two people could ever grow old together in the same passion that fuelled their youth. “Now, I’ve got a lifetime to consider all the ways / I’ve grown more disappointing to you as my beauty warps and fades / I suspect you feel the same” he says, and it’s hard not to think of it as a corollary to the sentiments he expresses in the title track, where the world is ending but he doesn’t care because he has love, and damn everything else. Once the initial intensity fades, what do you have left?
It’s that naked dichotomy – we can grow old together and we can never escape ourselves enough to grow old together – that gives I Love You, Honeybear its impetus. Even without the concept it succeeds as an admirably written collection of songs, but the concept brings it into the realm of being a modern classic. As a sophomore effort it’s leaps and bounds beyond the simpler, more rootsier Fear Fun, and despite the earliness of the calendar it’s a strong contender for album of the year.
The National are a band that filter the mischances of love through a thick layer of whiskey in an upscale Soho bar. Transplanted from Cincinnati at the end of the 1990s, the band members came to New York mostly to chase the dot-com boom that was still a viable way to make good money as a designer. In between their regular jobs, they had regular lives filled with regular human relationships – meaning there was light and darkness in equal measures, love and infidelity, lust and long walks on the arc-sodium-glittered city streets late at night. Even after they found enough success to quit their jobs and pursue their music full-time, this basic conceit never changed. They are a band obsessed with the deep problems of stable people: growing old, losing the wild days of youth, finding and losing love, getting too drunk too often and wondering where your life is headed. This is the same territory mined by Tom Waits, but the National play it straight, avoiding the gutter and crafting lush, graceful creations instead of pushing the envelope. They’re also a perfect example of a band’s struggles along the way to success. When they put out their first album, way back at the end of the dot-com bubble, they thought that it was their ticket to stardom. When they began playing strings of shows to audiences that ranged from little to none, they realized that success in music, especially in the age of p2p software and the share-everything culture of the internet, is a product of luck, talent, and heaps of hard work. They possessed all three in spades; by the time Trouble Will Find Me was released in 2013, debuted in the top five of the Billboard 200 was old hat. The path between, however, is one of the greatest success stories in modern indie rock.
THE NATIONAL (2001)
After two years of individually playing free shows at the Luna Lounge on the Lower East Side, The National put together a debut album that was partially indebted to the country-tinged pop of Wilco and the Jayhawks, but also very much a beacon for where the band would go throughout the first decade of the 21st Century. Matt Berninger sang like an on-tune Tom Waits, spinning sodden tales of love and lust through the whiskey-soaked lens of reclaimed Americana. Some at the time dismissed them derisvely as being a bar band; what they should have recognized was that the band simply played songs that seemed most at home in the hopeless crush of a neighbourhood bar. Songs like “Cold Girl Fever” and “American Mary” are unmistakably The National; “29 Years” was reused later on Boxer‘s “Slow Show”. Before they made the album they’d never played live together as a unit; they told Drowned In Sound that the album was the sound of them making introductions to each other. Afterwards they went out on tour with stars in their eyes; thinking that they’d earned the right to play out their dreams on tour, they played to very small crowds throughout the U.S., including one show in Orange County that was attended by precisely no one but the venue’s staff.
SAD SONGS FOR DIRTY LOVERS (2003)
Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers would be the first band with multi-instrumentalist Bryce Dessner and producer Peter Katis, and would have the overall bones of the sound that they would perfect on their subsequent four LPs. After the Wilco-studded bar-country of their debut, the band expanded their horizons into what they termed “a pastiche of…different genres”. Their second album remains their most experimental, featuring codas that go on for whole fifths of songs, synth moments, and some rather intense hard rock moments from Matt Berninger, who would never after go as hard as he did on “Slipping Husband” or “Available”. While they stuck primarily to the country-rock forms of their first album, indie folkists Red House Painters and then-critical darlings The Shins are other apparent influences throughout. Lyrically the album is exactly as advertised on the tin: Berninger spins sad stories of infidelity and relationship holding patterns. “Slipping Husband” relates a man getting lost in himself, dreaming of an important life he feels he should have had while his wife gets lonely and finds comfort outside their marriage. “Murder Me Rachael” is an exercise in self-castigation (or maybe admittance of violence) after seeing a lover with someone else. “Available” wakes up the morning after and wonders if it’s been used. “Trophy Wife” and “Cardinal Eyes” share a similar sentiment, about sleeping with the wild wives of unknown men. Unlike later albums, however, when the band slows down here they tend to wander off into boredom, especially on “90-Mile Water Wall”, “Thirsty”, and “Patterns of Fairytales”. Still, there was enough strong tracks on the album to make the critics sit up and take notice; Uncut and the Chicago Tribune would place it in their year-end lists and Hipster Bible Pitchfork reviewed it favourably. More importantly, people were turning out to shows, particularly in France where the band was picking up a following.
CHERRY TREE (EP) (2004)
Cherry Tree is the point the band credits as their turning point, the moment where their sound as The National came together. Certainly the first three songs – “Wasp Nest”, “All Dolled-Up In Straps”, and “All The Wine” (which would be recast on Alligator) are all top-notch indications of the glory that would be due the band by the next year. “Cherry Tree” and “About Today” both outlast their welcome by a wide margin, however, and “Reasonable Man (I Don’t Mind)” gets over that only by liberal usage of violinist Padma Newsome. The live version of “Murder Me Rachael” is nice enough but largely unessential. While the actual EP is so-so, it did get them a spot on tour with The Walkmen, who were riding on the success of “The Rat”; the tour would also see them signed to UK tastemakers Beggars Banquet, who would release their breakthrough follow-up.
The band’s first album for Beggars Banquet is their breakthrough, and it’s a major leap forward for them. It’s on Alligator that you can hear The National, as they were meant to be: slow-burning songs that verge on being hymns at times, drum-driven, mournful tracks about doomed relationships, exhausting materialism, and the propulsive power of love. Matt Berninger’s lyrics fall flat here and there, but they still display a certain sort of power, the kind of feeling you get on the city streets after the bars let out and you realize that you’ve grown tired of the hard pavement and the harder hearts of the yearning couples that surround you. They are very much lonely songs; “Well, whatever you do, listen, you better wait for me / No, I wouldn’t go out alone into America” he sings on “Karen”, before collapsing and saying “Karen, put me in a chair, fuck me and make me a drink, I’ve lost direction and I’m past my peak”. “Val Jester” warns that “you should have looked after her better / you should have looked after her more / you should have locked the door”, while he murmurs “Break my arms around the one I love and be forgiven by the time my lover comes” on “Daughters of the Soho Riots”. “Abel” and “Mr. November” are the most uptempo tracks on the album; “Abel” questions its writer’s sanity, while “Mr. November” was originally written for John Kerry and became an anthem for Barack Obama’s initial 2008 Presidential run. A lot of the anxiety and loneliness on the album stems from the band’s changing fortunes; they quit their jobs to focus on writing, recording, and touring behind the album, and the free-fall that they found themselves in drove them into a sort of paranoid state. By the time the next album would arrive, that anxiety would pay off huge dividends.
Boxer is where it all comes together – this is The National, and it’s the sound they would spend the subsequent two albums perfecting. To be truthful, their sound arrives perfect to begin with; there isn’t a mediocre song on here, and more than a few people have suggested that it is at the very least among the best albums of the 2000s and quite possibly among the greatest albums ever released. The band’s newfound mastery of it’s particularly soaring form of indie rock is evident from the beginning: the dual-time-signature piano measure that opens “Fake Empire” leads slowly into an orgasmic drum sequence and a post-coital coda whose swirling instrumentation can be best described as utopian. “Mistaken For Strangers” was the band’s strongest uptempo number to date, and was used in any number of pop-cultural moments (including an advertising campaign for the UK version of Skins). The string arrangments found throughout (especially at the end of “Brainy” and “Squalor Victoria”) add a baroque nature to the songs that counterbalances the mournful baritone Berninger brings to his usual tales of fading or faded love. There’s a sense that youth is slipping away through the album. “Guest Room” is my favourite for this: “We miss being ruffians, going wild and bright / In the corners of front yards, getting in and out of cars / We miss being deviants”. “Green Gloves” has another moment like this: “Falling out of touch with all my / friends are somewhere getting wasted / Hope they’re staying glued together / I have arms for them”. Sufjan Stevens shows up in two places – “Racing Like A Pro” and one of the album’s lesser-referenced highlights, “Ada”. One thing that’s always stood out to me about Boxer – and to a somewhat lesser extent about their two following albums – is how much of a drummer’s record this is. The drums are light and quick, but they hit hard and carry more of the songs than is typical with indie rock. They form a snappy undercurrent that sets the album – and the band – apart from their contemporaries just as much as Berninger’s baritone does.
Boxer is also my wife’s favourite album, full disclosure.
THE VIRGINIA EP (2008)
An odds-n-sods collection comprised of B-sides, demos, and live tracks, The Virginia EP is better than it really has a right to be. The Boxer sessions were obviously a hotbed of great songs, since “You’ve Done It Again, Virginia”, “Santa Clara”, “Blank Slate”, and “Without Permission” are all winners. The demos are decent, if rather lo-fi and half-finished, but the live tracks are another real strength of this EP. The Daytrotter Session of “Lucky You” adds some reverb to the original arrangement that breathes new life into it and reminds people who got on circa Boxer that The National existed well before Alligator. The cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion On The Hill” seems tailor-made for the band as well, and they acquit themselves well in their live version of it. Most mop-up compilations are unessential and The Virginia EP is no different, but it’s a trifle better than most.
HIGH VIOLET (2010)
From Beggars Banquet to Beggars Group, courtesy of new label 4AD, and from critical acclaim to commercial success: the backstory of High Violet is the story of a band in motion. Boxer capitalized on the curiosity brought about by Alligator to debut on Billboard at #68. High Violet had the pure goodwill generated by Boxer to jump off of, and it debuted at #3. The album would create a huge amount of critical praise as well, and with good reason. High Violet is easily the equal of Boxer, if not the superior album. Point to a less-than-stellar song here – you can’t, because there isn’t one. Every song has hooks that bite in deep and don’t let go, most of them driven by the snippets of Berninger’s lyrics that take up residence inside of your head. “Sorrow found me when I was young, sorrow waited, sorrow won” he sings on the aptly named “Sorrow”, and it sounds as though you’re listening to a contemporary short story writer sketch out another classic tale of urban ennui. This is the closest comparison point to the songs on High Violet – they are tales of modern life in the city when you’re sort of well-off and chasing the kind of life you think you’re supposed to have. They’re songs about stable people, and the unstable feelings they have in the pursuit of that stability. “Livin’ and dyin’ in New York it means nothing to me,” Berninger sings on “Lemonworld”, “I gave my heart to the Army/The only sentimental thing I could think of/With cousins and cousins somewhere overseas/But it’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me”. Elsewhere, he admits to being afraid of everyone and not having the drugs to sort it out, gets obstinante about being led into the flood, and gets carried back to Ohio on a swarm of bees. There’s a richness of detail that outdoes everything the band accomplished before, and by the end of “Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks” there’s a sense that you’ve just listened to an album people will still be putting on and studying thirty years hence.
TROUBLE WILL FIND ME (2013)
A lot of bands will take success as a sign to change up the way they do things; the fabled Breakthrough Album is typically the moment where everything switches gears, for better or for worse. For The National, though, the mainstream breakthrough of High Violet was a sign to double down on their sound. Trouble Will Find Me is a refinement of the sound that they’ve been developing in earnest since Boxer, and to a lesser extent since their 2001 debut. These are lush songs, simple on the surface because of the space that Berninger’s baritone takes up but possessed of a dizzying array of subtle details. Some of these are instrumental – the woodwinds, the strings, the carefully crafted tone of the piano. Some are the impressive guests – Sufjan Stevens shows up of course, but contemporary indie darlings St. Vincent, Sharon Van Etten, and Richard Reed Perry of Arcade Fire. The first five songs on the album are as unimpeachable as anything on either Boxer or High Violet. Opener “I Should Live In Salt” harkens back to Berninger’s days of self-castigation (this time with his brother Tom in mind, in a preview of the 2013 documentary Mistaken For Strangers), but it glides by on such a slowly soaring wave that it’s hard to feel bad for him. Lead single “Sea of Love” is as driving a number as they’ve ever written, and it constrasts nicely against the more relaxed pace of “Demons” and “Don’t Swallow The Cap”. “I Need My Girl” and “Pink Rabbits” are both modern classics that bolster the last half of the album against some moments that drag a bit – mostly on “Heavenfaced”, “Slipped”, and “Hard To Find”. Aside from that, this is a remarkably consistent album that streamlines the band’s sound. On previous albums the band spent much of the recording sessions arguing; these sessions were spearheaded by the Dessner brothers and were much more relaxed than usual. Like its predecessor, Trouble Will Find Me debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200, and met with widespread critical acclaim. In the hands of a less talented band, an album like this would have engendered scorn and derision, with talk of diminishing returns and a dearth of creativity. With The National, though, there is a sense that they’ve struck a rich vein of inspiration and are content to mine it for as long as is necessary. Still, though, rumour has it that the band is changing up their songwriting process the next time around, so the next National album could be quite different.
The band’s sixth studio album finds them settling into a definite groove, a comfort zone that seems immediately more expressive and tangible than the experimental/creative phases of a thousand other bands. To say that the band perfected their sound on their previous album, 2010’s High Violet, is probably not hyperbole – every track on that album (and Boxer, truth be told) was a winner, and while the same may not be the case on Trouble Will Find Me, it’s close enough to warrant a recount. The National have always been about a love of challenging rhythms married to Matt Berninger’s melancholy baritone, and nothing about that has changed here. Standouts like “I Should Live In Salt”, “Fireproof”, “Sea Of Love”, and “This Is The Last Time” showcase the odd timings the drummer prefers, as well as Berninger’s insidious songwriting type – songs that take two or three listens to really settle in but that are studded with little hooks and phrases that necessitate further spins. On the whole, Trouble Will Find Me is rather top-loaded, with the really stellar moments on the last half of the album coming a bit further apart; side B settles into a gentler, more piano-driven set that is comforting but tends to run together in the end.
There may be little here to differentiate the album from anything they’ve released since Alligator but unlike most bands this is not a serious problem. Fans of the band will not find anything to dislike and will probably be ecstatic about the continuation of their sound. Newcomers to the National will find an album that, while not as immediately accessible as High Violet, provides plenty of outcroppings for casual listeners to grab on to. Of course, that there would be anyone left out there that hasn’t listened to the band yet would be something of a surprise; after all, despite their lack of airtime on terrestrial radio, they routinely sell out shows, take over Sirius XMU for a week to celebrate this release, and get away with charging lower-level stadium band prices for their tickets. It’s a testament to the internet age that, in a world where they’re not getting played on modern format radio, they’re one of the biggest rock bands going – a lot of you are listening. A lot more will be listening after this album, I’m sure.