"Is it time to leave? Is it time to think about what I want to say to the girls at the door?" National singer Matt Berninger wonders aloud in his rich ashen voice near the end of Trouble Will End highlight "Don't Swallow the Cap." Though backed by a propulsive drum-beat from Bryan Devendorf, the song feels like it's encased in amber. Berninger's frozen still, icicles of "careful fear and dead devotion," clinging to his skin. He'll never leave, transfixed by the "bright white heaven," hanging over.
Penning a song about being stuck in place and unable to move is a sly acknowledgement on the National's part of their status in some circles as a band forever running in place. The old cliché of if you've heard one, you've heard them all comes to mind. It's always bothered me when bands of this caliber take flack for being "too reliable," a constantly shifting foundation would be ill-suited for a home, and the same can be said of a band like the National. They've slowly perfected their blueprint over six albums, and have no need to throw them out now.
The crawling "Heavenfaced" is a terrific example of this. Beginning with a pensive piano part, Berninger is standing still again, this time committing himself to another. "I could walk out, but I won't" develops into a mantra, as an unobtrusive drum beat and ringing guitar chords come in from the cold to keep Berninger company. Eventually the calm waters of the song crest into one wave the band rides off into the night. Midpoint "This Is the Last Time" is another instance, starting with Berninger and a guitar, before being enveloped by the rest of the band. Here again, Berninger sings of a place where entrapment is easy, in this case a swamp (a self-referential nod to the band's Alligator LP). "And I said I wouldn't get sucked in," Berninger sings with a tinge of self-defeat. The song is the sort-of inner monologue any one in a foundering romance has ever performed. The effete declaration of "I can't take this anymore," inevitably traded in for "we owe it to each other to make it work." By the time Berninger sings of the "thoughts" encased in his mind, he's officially sunk, and trouble has caught up again.
"Graceless" meanwhile is musically stuck in the past; you could be forgiven if the bass figure and sepulcher vocals remind you of Joy Division's "Disorder." It's an appropriate reference point for a band that's dealt in crawling numbers for years now. On that track, Ian Curtis sang of "waiting to feel the pleasures of a normal man," but here Berninger is doing his best to dull any sensation. The "balance" between pain and pleasure is untenable, and he's searching for a powder or pill to settle the score. When "the waiting" becomes unbearable it's easy to run away, to take "the easy way out," and Berninger embraces that shortcut. Not out of cowardice, but out of self-preservation for the shard of himself that still remains.
Running away is the motif of the sullen "Slipped," Berninger in another city to put distance between himself and a former flame. It registers as a late night phone-call, summarizing the ups and downs of a relationship, and surmising what went wrong. The promise of "I'll be a friend and a fuck-up and everything. But I'll never be anything you want me to be," is a miniature triumph, the one piece of self-defense in a puzzle of resignation. Near the song's end, Berninger makes one final plea, "I don't want you to grieve, I just want you to sympathize all right. I can't blame you for losing your mind for a little while, so did I." If hindsight is 20/20, then this is the moment of absolute clarity.
On closer "Hard to Find" Berninger wonders if the glow of an old love can be found in the night sky. He's looking back again, scanning for that light that once lit up the darkness. Rather than track it down he calls it quits, remembering the times when it all burned just a bit too bright. Finally, the lyrical summation of the album arises when he admits "we're still waiting for the ease to cover what we can't erase." Sometimes when the existential dread that comes with fitting in, failed relationships, doubt, and depression becomes life-threatening, the only way to survive… is to wait.