In December, aside from the several, seemingly endless trips into town to get Christmas presents for friends and family, I’m also aware that it’s about this time that several music publications, websites and the like produce a wealth of end-of-year polls. I’ve already read several different interpretations of how, supposedly, Yeezus by Kanye West is one of 2013’s best as well as several accounts of Vampire Weekend’s brilliance and just one lone ranger championing the latest Paul McCartney album, which entered their chart at #4 (gold star if you can guess the publication – it honestly isn’t difficult).
The website that I write for, MusicOMH, will have its own list out later this month to accompany everyone else’s and, once again, I have cast my vote. Once it’s published, I’ll probably reveal the top ten that I went for in 2013. It was an especially difficult task this year given the wealth of great music that came out; there’s never been point in time where there hasn’t been enough good releases, especially if you look hard enough in the right places…but the last twelve months have felt particularly special.
However, I do want to talk about an album that almost topped my chart (heck, it’s probably a sneaky joint-first) and, in many ways, became something on a true audio companion. In the couple of months after it came out, I would listen to it a lot. In the same way where, if you meet someone you really like, you want to keep hanging out with them. The real test is after the initial honeymoon period; are you so bored by the company that you decide to go your own way (possibly for good) or can you see the future being a big bunch of roses and continued joy?
(The above paragraph implies that I am somewhat skilled in the art of love and relationships but I know just as little as anyone else, really.)
Fast-forward to December and I still find myself on train journey after train journey, gazing up at the darkened sky that is lit up by all manner of lights at Woking station, listening to Trouble Will Find Me by The National. I still get the same feelings that I did when I first wrapped my ears around it – if anything, those feelings might have even intensified as the weeks have gone by.
The past year has definitely one of the stranger, happier, bleaker, and melancholic periods of my life. Amid all of the highlights, there have been moments that, whilst not entirely life-threatening or heartbreaking, have been quite more testing than they had any right to be. This isn’t helped by a tendency to over-analyse nearly everything; every day is a constant case of “Maybe I worded that wrong” or “Have I just upset someone?” This isn’t a feeling that’s new to me but it has certainly been heightened, over the past few months especially, as I worry, perhaps unnecessarily, about different things that have the potential to wreck relationships with people.
This is where The National come in; Trouble Will Find Me instantly appealed to me because it was a great record by a band that I’ve liked for a very long time. I remember when they played Brixton Academy in 2010, and how they floored me unequivocally. It was one of the most impassioned shows I’ve ever been to and it left me and a friend of mine completely dazed by how good it was. We didn’t expect anything this good. With that in mind, the announcement of a new album was exciting news for me and I’m more than happy that it met my own personal expectations.
Later on, as I kept listening, I dug deeper and deeper into Matt Berninger’s lyrics and the textures I missed originally and realised that, as the worn-out but sometimes painfully true cliché goes, the reason I liked it so much is that so many of the songs could well have been about myself. I mean, obviously they’re not. I doubt Matt sat down in the writing process and thought “I think some lanky mid-20s male from Woking will totally get it if I write this and this”. It’s just a matter of personal interpretation, but that’s how I deciphered it, and I found it both slightly surreal and terrifying at the same time.
The music that ultimately connects with you the longest is the kind that taps into your own pit of emotions – mostly the darker ones – and prods at your memories, details your moods with great accuracy, and maybe even foretells your own future. If you ever see someone shed tears (or just bawl their eyes out) at a gig, it’s because their internal emotional triggers have been activated by something – a chord sequence, a melody, or even just two words in a song that has over fifty or so lines. There’s also a sense of shock – “why is this about me?” you think in your head. The realisation of how close to home it hits is devastating. I may not cry whilst listening to Let It Be (not the best Beatles LP) or Nevermind (I just want to rock out) and I’ve never drunk a pink rabbit in my life (I’m all about mojitos) but there are lines and themes in tracks like ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’ or ‘Pink Rabbits’ that I felt have summed me up at the specific time that I was listening to then. The response I’ve had has been similar to when a magician or illusionist performs a trick or illusion that seems to fly in the face of all conceivable logic. On that basis, you could argue that The National are better magicians than most actual magicians.
Matt Berninger references plenty of unknown people throughout, as he has done on previous releases (e.g. Jo in ‘Sea Of Love’ and Jenny in ‘This Is The Last Time’). In my head, the people in those songs aren’t them. They are other people. They are people who I love dearly and don’t want to hurt; I’m constantly in fear of hurting or betraying them and, most of all, Trouble Will Find Me seems to feed on these anxieties.
Thankfully, I know people whose love for this record is just as undeniable as mine. It does help to know that I’m not the only one who feels this way about music (even though these responses to music are perfectly natural, it can still feel extremely silly sometimes, especially if no one else shares your enthusiasm for it). I can imagine a scenario where me and a friend could listen to all thirteen songs in stony silence, maybe with a glass of wine each, and then look at each other afterwards with an air of satisfaction, knowing fully well that we can both relate to it. I’ve not tried that yet though. Maybe I should.
Essentially, beneath the grace, the musicianship, and all the other factors that explain why Trouble Will Find Me is a superb album, what it truly boils down to is the fact that I just get it. Few records make me feel that way, and they’re the ones that will stay with me until the end of days, even if other things in my life don’t last as long. Stereogum probably summed it up best in their (you guessed it) end-of-year poll:
Their music is the ultimate drinking buddy for life’s most melancholic moments, those times when you need a steady shoulder and not a ripped-up foundation.