Early on in his new book, My Bright Abyss, poet Christian Wiman says this of grace: “To experience grace is one thing; to integrate it into your life is quite another. What I crave now is that integration, some speech that is true to the transcendent nature of grace yet adequate to the hard reality in which daily faith operates.” I see this “speech” in the music of The National, and have ever since I started listening to the band back in college. The National’s known for their kind of slow-burn, melancholic sound, and lead singer Matt Berninger is wont to tell stories of screw-ups, misfits, and outsiders–it’s no different in Trouble Will Find Me. Yet, for all the hardship-talk that The National have explored throughout their career, each of their albums contains moments, often unexpected, where grace bursts through the haze of Berninger’s deep baritone and the band’s structural backdrop.

National_TroubleWillFindMeBerninger’s lyrics are the kind of dark, grim insights that you come upon when lying awake at night or stuck in a inescapable situation, and the music on Trouble Will Find Me perfectly complements these lyrics. “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” which adds some tender female background vocals to the mix, is an oddly arranged song, seemingly describing the feeling of being at a party that is not going according to plan. “Is it time to leave? Is it time to think about what to say to the girls at the door?” Berninger asks, just before the song is empathically enveloped again with vocals and strings. On “Pink Rabbits,” a lugubrious, piano-driven tune, Berninger tries to come to terms with a break-up, his voice in a slightly higher register, as if reaching for some sort of thought, some knowledge he may have missed. “Pink Rabbits,” too, slowly swells to revelation–the layering of drums, piano, and vocals brings on Berninger’s whispers near the end of the song: “You said it would be painless. It wasn’t that at all.”

While many of the characters on Trouble Will Find Me are playing the same roles as those on previous National albums, a few of the songs here are more explicit on spiritual struggle. The album’s second song, “Demons,” dips to a growl, detailing various bouts with depression: “The worried talk to God goes on…wish that I could rise above it, but I stayed down with my demons.” This transitions into a triumphant (or the closest thing to triumphant on a National record) bridge, as rolling toms and strings escalate with the voice, but the lyrics are nowhere close to triumphant. They instead seem to revel in the darkness or accept the inevitability of it all. Here, and on “This Is the Last Time,” Berninger taps into our human propensity for persisting in behavior and situations that we know are detrimental: “But your love is such a swamp, you don’t think before you jump, and I said I wouldn’t get sucked in, this is the last time,” intones Berninger at the song’s beginning. We are drawn, via drums, deeper into the song’s fragile psyche, while the circular rhythm suggests the nowhere effects of trying to quit with willpower and self-control. Berninger seems deeply aware of our inability to follow the law and the very next song on the album (despite its title), “Graceless,” provides a different take on the law than “This Is the Last Time.”


One of the more upbeat songs on the album, “Graceless” begins with Berninger musing about being “graceless” and “figuring out how to be faithless.” However, by the end of the song, as the song takes a decidedly U2 turn (chiming guitars and pulsing bass), Berninger sings: “Grace, put the flowers you find in a vase. If you’re dead in the mind, it’ll brighten the place.” On “Heavenfaced,” a similar idea is repeated by a line that is seemingly disconnected from the rest of the song and, in many ways, the rest of the album. Morose and ponderous from the start, “Heavenfaced” eventually transforms into a hymnic song, despite being preceded by a quiet refrain: “Let’s go out and wait in the fields with the ones we love.” Waiting. To me, the line conjures  a moment free from the busy-ness of modern life, the permeating love and grace evident every day in the world. It’s a powerful sentiment that stands out even more when placed in the context of the rest of Trouble Will Find Me.

With Trouble Will Find Me, The National have crafted another superb set of songs that only get better the more time you spend with them. While not rising to the heights of Alligator or Boxer, Trouble Will Find Me is unmistakably a National album, dealing with the reality of life in all its travails and rarer, glimmering triumphs. It’s notable, though, that the moments that stand out most on Trouble Will Find Me is not the dark foreground, but the back lights that shine through the darkness, pointing us to grace.