By now, listeners know what to expect from The National. Nobody does downcast-yet-uplifting elegant midlife crisis rock better — or more singularly — than the Brooklyn-based Cincinnati natives.
So earlier this year, when the group was recruited by the New York museum MoMA PS1 to perform its 2010 album track “Sorrow” repeatedly for six hours straight as part of an art installation, the joke that immediately popped into a million music fans’ minds, mine included, was: How is that different than any other National concert?
We are so clever, aren’t we?
We’re also basically right. The National’s palette has grown increasingly narrow, its skills refined to a sharp pointandwielded deftlyWith each successive album, the band’s been honing in more acutely on what do best, to the point that it really can be difficult to discern between songs sometimes. Thing is, I can’t tell the difference between most red wines, but I’ll most certainly drink them. And The National’s sad-bastard euphoria is reminiscent of nothing if not red wine.
Drink up, then. Trouble Will Find Me, the band’s sixth album, is out now, and it’s splendid. Furthermore, the band return to the LC Pavilion’s outdoor stage Saturday to headline Next@Wex Fest, a benefit for CD102.5 For the Kids and the Wexner Center Local Natives and Matthew E. White are playing too, and The National probably won’t just play “Sorrow” on repeat.
Regarding that MoMA ordeal: “Thankfully they chose that song for us to play for six hours, not ‘Mr. November’ or something,” bassist Scott Devendorf said, referring to the fiery fan favorite from 2005’s Alligator, one of The National’s more aerobic singles “It became this cool little group meditation thing… It was actually pretty fun, and it didn’t kill us. So I guess we learned something from it, which is endurance.”
Devendorf called from Brooklyn a few days before The National left for tour. Because he supervises the band’s cover art with singer Matt Berninger, the first thing I asked him about was the striking image that adorns Trouble Will Find Methe top half of a woman’s face poking through a face-shaped hole in a mirror.Apparently it’s cropped from a larger image taken from ’70s performance art in which mirrors were used to bisect nude models
“Something about just cropping in on the head of the female model was just iconic and weird to us,” Devendorf said. “There’s something nostalgic about 1970s performance art. It was just so odd. There’s no Photoshop or anything, it’s just a mirror over someone’s face. But when it’s isolated in this little square there’s this strange power to it.”
The band also foundthe image oddly funny, which certainly fits Trouble Will Find Me. A cursory listen shows The National’s typically morose guitar balladry souped-up with orchestral bombast, but closer attention reveals Berninger delivering more self-deprecatingpunchlines than ever, describing himself as “a television version of a person with a broken heart” and punctuating the line “When I walk into a room, I do not light it up” with a colorful expletive It’s by no means a sunshine record, a sense of playfulness sneaks through the gloom sometimes.
Chalk that up, maybe, to a far less contentious recording process than the one that birthed 2010’s High Violet. The new album came together with relatively little turmoil by National standards. The good spirits started with a band retreat to a house in upstate New York for the initial studio sessions.
“I think the way that we did this record and the attitude going into it was a little different from the last one,” Devendorf said. “We weren’t worried about any specific aesthetic idea at the outsetWe went in with the idea that we were going to at least try a more communal setup for the basic trackingI think that added to less tensionWe were all kind of playing together. That, at least at the onset made it have kind of a family vibe for lack of a better termWe had to live together and work together for about a month, upstate, far away from all our comfortable places of being.”
Whatever peace The National found while making this album, the band has no intention of easing into middle age. They’ve become adept at flipping somber studio tracks into explosive live performances. Their southwestern Ohio lineage, perhaps, prevents them from settling for live shows without life in them.
“We’re getting older,” Devendorf said, “but it never stopped Guided y Voices.”