This is the sound of despair, according to singer Matt Berninger of the National: “If you want to make me cry,” he claims early on this record, in “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” “play Let It Be or Nevermind.” It is a surprising admission, given the Brooklyn band’s established anguish on albums like 2007’s Boxer and the 2010 bestseller, High Violet: a chaos of broken affections and mortal fears drawn with spare rhythmic and melodic flourishes, often in wide, open reverb. On much of Trouble Will Find Me as well, the terse phrases and single-tone exclamations of guitarists Bryce and Aaron Dessner hang around Berninger’s baritone gravity like clouded starlight.
But there is pop, too: not much Beatles or Nirvana but enough pre-stadium U2 and classic David Bowie – that clarity and engagement – to draw you closer, faster, to the grace and crisis here. Berninger sings only of bad options in “Sea of Love” but does it against a sizzling pulse and a golden glaze of harmonies. In “Fireproof,” his deep, scuffed voice is ringed with teardrop guitar. “I Need My Girl” is compact urgency with a dusky guitar figure that’s actually a little country. In another age, the song could have been a radio-breakthrough single. Now it’s just good news: The National are letting light and air into their shadows.