Outside Looking In
Trying to Like the National... Again

Recently, an acquaintance of mine posted a short rant about how much he would like to hate Vampire Weekend. He seemed sincerely disappointed that the band’s music struck a chord with him, since it prevented him from despising the group outright. Evidently, this boiling resentment came solely from looking at photos and reading interviews. At least, I guess so, since the music apparently didn’t play a part.

Quite frankly, I don’t understand this at all. I’ve been called a hater before, but I’ve never felt this way. I’ve never wanted to hate anything. On the contrary, I go into every musical experience hoping it will enrich my life. I’ve certainly bought albums I expect will be terrible, but I’ve delved into each of them with an open mind, hoping for the best. And if I do end up disliking something, it’s because of the music on the disc, not any other factor.

I’m not a hater. But man, do I seem to hate the National.

My distaste for this New York quintet is well documented, and a source of consternation to many of my friends. And I want to say this to all of them: I’m just as frustrated as you are. I want to like this band. I honestly do. It’s no fun being on the outside looking in, listening to High Violet and failing to hear the soulful and powerful music everyone else is hearing. It pains me that I don’t like this.

But I don’t. I’ve never really examined why – at least, not in this space – so I’m going to use the occasion of the National’s sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, to pick this apart. Once again, I’ve bought a National album hoping to like it, and once again, the record has left me mostly cold. I’ve heard Trouble Will Find Me four times now, and on two of those run-throughs, the more sedate atmosphere the band conjures this time has worked for me. On the other two, I’ve nearly drifted off from sheer boredom.

People like me who don’t like the National will often say they’re boring, and leave it at that. I’m not sure that means much on its own. It’s true, of course – I do think the National is one of the most boring bands I’ve ever heard. But I think that’s subjective, and about what each individual listener is looking for. There are plenty of bands in my favorites list that others have described as boring. Marillion, in particular, comes in for that criticism a lot. Where I hear majestic and soul-stirring, others hear painful plodding.

So here’s what I mean when I say I find the National boring. I respond well to songs that are either about their melodies, like the best work of Elvis Costello and Aimee Mann and Andy Partridge, or about their atmospheres, like the music of Hammock and Sigur Ros. I find that the National tries to straddle that line, and ends up being neither melodic nor atmospheric enough for me. National songs tend to stick to a few chords, usually played slowly, and repeated without much variation. Matt Berninger’s voice is a fine, low, sonorous instrument, but he never does too much with it, staying close to the root notes and barely sounding like he’s awake. What melodies there are never really take off.

Even though Trouble Will Find Me contains the best National songs I’ve ever heard, there are still plenty of examples here. Take the first single (and second track), “Demons.” The most interesting thing about it is its 7/8 meter. Berninger spends the verses moving back and forth between two notes, and when the chorus comes (“I stay down with my demons”), neither Berninger nor the band do very much to call attention to it. The bridge section actually feels like a buildup, with Owen Pallet’s orchestration kicking in, but Berninger’s snoozy delivery keeps things flat, and the song quickly returns to the few chords it started with. To me, there is literally nothing memorable about this song – it starts, it ends, it goes nowhere in between.

If you’re fine with the atmosphere conjured up here, you’ll like this more than I do. This is the least rocking National album yet, and the songs with faster beats are the weakest. “Don’t Swallow the Cap” is practically spoken – if Berninger sings three different notes during its whole running time, I’d be surprised – and everyone but drummer Bryan Devendorf seems to be sleepwalking through this. Devendorf is the highlight throughout, actually. Many of these songs are in odd time signatures, and while the rest of the band continues to plod while counting in their heads, the drum work is nimble and interesting.

When the arrangements strip down, I’m generally happier with what I’m hearing. “Fireproof” may be the first National song since “Ada” that I like unreservedly. Its delicate guitar figure suits its windswept melody, and Berninger drifts into his upper register, always a good thing. “Humiliation” may as well be this band’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It changes a good three times, including during a brief coda, and even when it’s merely stretching out its mood, it does that well.

But most of the record is like “Heavenfaced” and “Graceless”: repetitive and dull. The National is very good at introductions. The first 30 seconds of every one of their songs lead me to believe that they’re going somewhere remarkable, and I’m usually left wanting by the end. A song like “I Need My Girl” could be special – it has a wonderful ringing guitar part, and Berninger’s voice fits it well. But then it simply repeats four chords again and again, never lifting off.

Fans of the National will point out Berninger’s lyrics as a selling point, and they’re right to. He’s a fine wordsmith, and his gift has not failed him on Trouble Will Find Me. At times, he seems to be channeling Leonard Cohen, both vocally and lyrically. “Fireproof” begins like this: “You keep a lot of secrets and I keep none, wish I could go back and keep some.” The record is full of little gems like that, and if finely written lyrics were all I needed, I could feast on this album.

But if lovely poetry were enough for me, I’d be a Bob Dylan fan. I need the sense that the music was just as painstakingly crafted, and with a few exceptions, I don’t find that among the National’s catalog. Trouble Will Find Me is several steps in the right direction, but the style they seem to be going for negates most of that work. I like the more sedate sound of this album – even a song like “Sea of Love” feels restrained, and the record overall seems draped in shadow. I just wish it sounded more alive at the same time.

I will admit that some of my issue is the sheer amount of acclaim this band receives. It encourages them to remain as they are – humorless, dour and dull. Every song on Trouble is accompanied by a specially commissioned painting in the liner notes, and while I’ve never had a problem with that practice before (see Peter Gabriel’s Us, which I adore), it seems to speak to this band’s sense of self-importance. That’s not bad in itself, but it leads to songs like these, content to wallow in themselves.

Of course, all of this is about my taste, about the way I perceive and receive music. I am listening to Trouble again, for the fifth time, and finding that some parts of it I dismissed last time through – “This Is the Last Time,” for instance, or the Mark Eitzel-esque “Slipped” – are working for me. This is undoubtedly my favorite record they’ve made, for what that’s worth. But the National still hasn’t broken through for me, as much as I want them to. I’ll keep trying, though, and I hope that they will, too.

Meanwhile, I just want to lay to rest the idea that I ever want to hate something. I take no joy whatsoever in writing negative reviews, in not connecting with music. Most of what I hear drifts in one ear and out the other, leaving no mark. I keep listening, though, because each new song might be the one that redraws my life, that leaves me breathless, that sends my spirit soaring. All cliches, I know, but they’re all true. That album, that song, that musical moment that kicks open my doors and lets the light in, that’s worth everything. I am always hoping, every time, that each song I hear will be the one.

In the end, it’s music. Of course I want to love it all. Of course I do.

Next week, Ben Folds, Megadeth, Laura Marling and/or Queens of the Stone Age. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date.

See you in line Tuesday morning.