There seem to have been almost as many albums released in May that are worth giving a damn about as there were in the whole of the previous four months of 2013. They’re probably strategically launched in May so that people will know the words come festival season.
The National – Trouble Will Find Me
In which The National begin their circumnavigation of what one might cynically call ‘MOR’. Which is to say that Matt Berninger is certainly ensconced in his 40s now, and his bandmates can’t be far if at all behind, and parenthood and reasoned perspectives make for a less angry band than they might once have been. Live they may still hurtle through “Mr November”, but I doubt they’d be able to write it anymore.
This isn’t necessarily a problem though, because rather than settle for obvious denominators, easy key changes and platitudinous melodies, The National have evolved in subtle, sophisticated ways. In 2013, their songs shimmer and meander more than they clatter and groan. I can accept this happily; they’ve already clattered and groaned. And with a larger audience now than at any time in their past, it’s a relief to feel that they’re not pandering to expanded (and therefore limited) expectations.
If The National have a problem, and all bands have at least one problem, it’s that they’re too too musical, too clever, that they have too many good ideas. Trouble Will Find Me is a gorgeous record, but it’s so stuffed to the gills with that gorgeousness that it might actually suffer a little from it. They’ve been edging towards over-arranging records for a little while, but here they may just tip the balance. They never single-track a vocal when they can double-track it; never settle for one beatific, anti-gravity guitar line when they can have two, and an organ track, and a piano, and a violin or three, and a whiff of gentle feedback coursing through the song, and a bassline. And that’s not to mention the drums.
All of these elements are sophisticated, beautiful, worth arranging, worth hearing. It would be a crying shame to isolate, eliminate, and waste any one of them. But at the same time, it’s almost a crying shame to use them all; they end up competing for harmonic space and attention, overlapping each other’s frequencies, obscuring themselves. And like a multitude of beautiful colours swirled together on a canvas, there’s a danger that, without absolute, consummate skill, you’ll end up with a dull brown.
Which isn’t to say that The National have made a dull, brown record; but some people, from some angles, will accuse them of having done so. I just wish that The National’s evident sophistication had been applied to what to leave out as much as what to leave in. Perhaps a hand like Jim O’Rourke’s at the tiller during mixing would have steered them into marginally more minimal waters. I’m thinking explicitly of what he did for Wilco with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, allegedly removing a host of subtle, experimental elements from each song with great care and making the entire record feel ten times more subtle and experimental as a result.
All this said, I still like Trouble Will Find Me an awful lot, and, despite my reservations, which still exist, The National have become (largely thanks to my wife) a definite favourite. If there isn’t a tune as direct as “Bloodbuzz Ohio” or “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” here, that’s OK, because there are several as indirect as “England”.
Primal Scream – More Light
I have been a fan of Primal Scream for the best part of 20 years. For most of the last ten years of that period, I have had absolutely zero faith in their ability to make a decent record. In their 30-odd-year career (and much of it has been very, very odd indeed) they’ve only actually made three albums that I really like; Screamadelica, Vanishing Point, and XTRMNTR. There are, granted, good songs scattered across their other records, and a couple of those records aren’t absolute disasters (Evil Heat is OK, just about), but those are the only three I’d defend.
So I genuinely thought Bobby Gillespie and co (which now seams to be just him and Andrew Innes, plus whoever wanders through the studio, now that Mani is back in The Stone Roses and Throb is long gone; even Duffy seems to be only an occasional sideman these days) were past the point of ever making another good record again. Really, really far past that point.
Which makes it a surprise that More Light is at all worth a damn, especially when Bobby is opining state-of-the-nation lyrics about teenage rebellion and “favelas up and down the M1”, as he does here from time to time.
The secret seems to be, unsurprisingly, working with a strong producer who has a vision. David Holmes takes the reigns here, having worked on XTRMNTR way back when (Bobby guested on Holmes’ own Bow Down To The Exit Sign a decade and a half ago); the intervening years have seen Holmes establish himself as a film soundtrack man first and foremost, and it seems as if Holmes has guided Primal Scream into doing what they might do best; soundtracking an imaginary film.
Bobby’s said that Holmes sequenced the album with this in mind; the propulsive, elongated “2013”, with it’s insistent 70s Bowie saxophone and kraut-ish pulse and Kevin Shields guitar, is a scene-setting title sequence, whilst the “Movin’ On Up” progeny “It’s Alright, It’s OK” is the joyous track over the closing credits. In between we get, to be fair, a handful of semi-turgid future rockers loaded with Bobby’s polemic (to be fairer, at least he cares, when many others don’t seem to), interspersed with awesome, unexpected diversions like “River Of Pain” (check out the orchestral eruption 2/3s through) and “Turn Each Other Inside Out” (those gorgeous twin guitars), and “Relativity”. And even the semi-turgid future rockers are a massive step above the awful modernist-country-blues of Riot City Blues; “Culturecide” (no one but Bobby could neologise such a word) and “Hit Void” are far more memorable and more fun than anything from Beautiful Future.
More Light isn’t an epochal impact like Screamadelica or XTRMNTR; I doubt it will change the way we feel about dance music or usher in waves of discopunk. But it also isn’t an embarrassment. Which, for Primal Scream in 2013, is an achievement.
Words on Daft Punk and Vampire Weekend to follow. And maybe some others.