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Of National Importance

Trouble Will Find MeThe National have returned with new album Trouble Will Find Me. Is it now fair to suggest that they are the most important alternative band of their generation?

When REM were at their peak (late 80s, since you ask) they strode the planet – well, drove round it in a tour bus, anyway – like a sort of four-headed alt. colossus. Everyone you knew either loved them or, at the very least, respected them; up until the ubiquity of the early 90s Shiny Happy Band period, seldom was heard a discouraging word from those who loved their music. They were de facto leaders of the Melody Maker tribe, reliably churning out a belter of an album every year and simply being great. Could it be that The National are to the 10s what the Athens crew were to the 80s?

Their new album Trouble Will Find Me has recently been released, building on the healthy sales of 2010’s breakthrough record High Violet. It’s yet another solid outing from a band seemingly incapable of producing a bad album. That it doesn’t quite match its predecessor is more a testament to the greatness of the previous record than any major fault of the current one. The criticism of uniformity still stands – The National have essentially one song they do at slightly different speeds – but that’s a flaw which many artists from many genres share and one that seems to most be highlighted when it’s a guitar band perpetrating it.

Like Van Morrison has demonstrated for decades, sometimes there’s no need to reinvent a wheel that’s running smoothly. Of course, should that lapse into comfortable acceptance of the bland, then it’s time to change, but Trouble Will Find Me contains enough great moments to keep them on the right side of the divide. ‘Graceless’, for example, is a magnificent song, all soft layers and subtle changes building to a heartaching chorus full of loss and regret. Yes, they have done that before but they are very, very good at it. If you don’t feel a slight pang during ‘Slipped’, well, you’ve had a happier life than most.

And that’s why The National are so important. They’ve become a sort of kite mark for modern rock, producing intelligent, heartfelt albums that manage to sound uniquely like them from first listen and that doesn’t pander especially but still resonates with a large audience. If you don’t love The National, at the very least you respect them. And that marks them out as a very important act as music continues to fragment in this post-internet world. Uncomfortable though they may be carrying a standard, they are worthy flagbearers.

Trouble Will Find Me is out now on 4AD Records.
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4 Responses

  1. The national are okay, not great. The difference between them and REM (and other great bands) is simple. They lack EXCITEMENT in their songs. It’s all a bit, y’know, alright, isn’t it? Nothing wrong with that but The National wouldn’t make me want to chuck my job and pick up a guitar, y’know?

  2. That’s a fair point. That’s how I feel about Radiohead, for example.

    The National aren’t my favourite band, but I think in terms of a consensus band, they are establishing a position akin to REM in the 80s where even if you aren’t a huge fan, you admire they way they go about their business.

  3. It is. I think with the fragmentation of music it’s easier to find new bands in your specific genre of interest, but it makes bands rising to the top tend to be a bit blander.

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