Slowly but surely, Brooklyn quintet The National have developed over a decade from modest alt.country beginnings to the point where they can draw 10,000 fans to an Obama rally. That they have retained serious artistic credibility while doing so – they recently played the same song for six hours as part of an artwork, and The Kronos Quartet has commissioned an album of guitarist Bryce Dessner's compositions – speaks volumes about the virtues of their approach.
The warm but haunting Trouble Will Find Me will surely cement their accession to the rock mainstream. It's both the most personal, and most melodically welcoming, of their albums, its subtle, multi-layered arrangements seeming to hover weightlessly while Matt Berninger's lyrics drill into emotionally troubling territory. The characters in the songs seem rather English in their quiet desperation, particularly conveyed in Berninger's sombre baritone. “I'm having trouble inside my skin, I'm trying to keep my skeleton in,” sings the protagonist of “Slipped”; while the repeated invocation “You should know me better than that” in “I Should Live in Salt” is like someone gently picking at an emotional scab of regret. The restrained self-assessment in “Demons” – “I'm going through an awkward phase” – could apply to virtually all these mini-psychodramas.
But whatever the emotional trauma, the tone never slips into hysteria, even when the drummer Bryan Devendorf is powering “Humiliation” along with a crunching Neu! motorik. And there's an engrossing diffidence about the Dessner twins' guitars, their riffs knitted from delicate, cycling arpeggios layered with wisps and smears of guitar noise. Sometimes the momentum builds like Arcade Fire, but more often the music surrounds the song like a shell, akin to the emotional carapace depicted in “Fireproof”. These are songs which acknowledge how the lurking power of feelings can just as readily numb, or stun, as drive one to paroxysms of cathartic emoting, and that the quiet ones are often the ones to watch out for.
Download: Pink Rabbits; I Should Live in Salt; Fireproof; Humiliation