**1/2 (out of four)
The National have staked out a reputation as some of America's preeminent sad indie rock bros, an impression they've nurtured through being the kind of band that wears dark colors and records videos of themselves looking incredibly serious. The group also has, particularly following 2010's “High Violet,” risen to the status of being one of the country's best, most beloved rock bands, placing them in an awkward position: The sad indie rock bro makes an uncomfortable rock star. As singer Matt Berninger sighs on his band's latest album, “When I walk into a room, I do not light it up.”
That album, “Trouble Will Find Me,” sees the Brooklyn-based band dialing up the sadness and cutting back on the rock, which is unfortunate. The National has always been sad in a deep-seated-despair-at-the-human-condition way, and their songs about the meaninglessness of office work or being pursued by debt were really more anxious than woeful, channeling malaise into cathartic guitar parts. If one of those songs came on at the kind of dimly lit artisanal cocktail bar sad indie rock bros hang out at, it might have prompted some dudes to bond over it and share their feelings.
This latest album, however, probably would make them want to order another drink.
Part of the problem is that Berninger's normally arresting baritone sounds anesthetized, whether through production or actual physical change, making it seem resigned. Songs like “This is the Last Time” and “Humiliation” plod along shapelessly without ever building or releasing much tension. In many ways, the album has a safe, restrained, grown-up feeling. Lyrically, it lacks specificity.
At the same time, The National is an incredibly tight band, and its compositions are as ambitious and perfectly executed as ever. The members sound great swelling to anthemic peaks and often even better in unexpected codas, like the back-and-forth bursts of guitar that close “Don't Swallow the Cap.” The highlights – the full-on rocker “Sea of Love” and the limber opener “I Should Live In Salt” – make it clear that these guys can put together massive songs when they feel like it. If only being indie-rock stars would cheer them up enough to do so.
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic
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