[4AD; 2013]

If there’s one thing you can’t fault the National for lacking, it’s an identity. Across six albums they have seen magnificent progress, artfully transitioning from booze-soaked barroom Americana to majestic, stadium-sized indie rock. The threads that have run through them all, underscored by the gloomy, ever-recognizable baritone of singer Matt Berninger, the lithe guitar work of the Dessner brothers and Bryan Devendorf’s imposing skill behind the drum kit, are thicker than ever on Trouble Will Find Me. The quintet’s development on their sixth record is fully audible, as they confidently plunge into quirky time signatures and key changes, fool around with loops, and sneak grandiose hooks behind Berninger’s declarations of loss and regret.

In many ways, Trouble Will Find Me is the National formula distilled. If you liked their breakthrough, 2010’s High Violet, it’s tough to imagine you won’t enjoy this as well, even if there are pronounced differences. Berninger’s lyrics are more distant, sighing in broad strokes and reveling in less detail. There are no more arms around stereos or walking with spiders, just exhausted, intimate dialogues with people who are often mentioned by name. Others feel like summaries of earlier National tunes, albeit with a little more Bowie and a little less of the Cure. How willing you are to overlook this rather intense focus on continuity will depend on how much you’ve bought in to the National brand. Taken one song at a time however, it’s really hard to fault them for it when every aspect of the music is crafted with such competence.

And yet there is a contradiction at the heart of Trouble. The experimentation with rhythm is pronounced yet natural, but the songs built around them may also be the National’s most linear. Many of them function as a singular concept, on to which further flourishes are tacked. The propulsive, elegant “Graceless” takes defenestration to another level, cleaving anxiously to an incessant, unflinching drum tempo, and the gorgeous “I Need My Girl” plays like a coyer version of “England,” stacking horns, synths and strings around a jeweled guitar. On “I Should Live In Salt,” Berninger’s coaxing reiterations of “You should know me better than that” are conveyed with the gentleness of pillow talk, then he beats himself up over it at the chorus: “I should live in salt for leaving you behind.” The repetition is the anchor in a song that’s stripped to the essentials and seems destined to become a live favourite.

But Berninger isn’t just heartbroken, he’s running an emotional decathalon. On “Humiliation” he’s close to his breaking point, weary beyond comprehension. “I survived the dinner,” he begins, before delving into less than flattering statements of self: “As the free fall advances/ I’m the moron who dances.” Elsewhere, things aren’t quite so bleak. He’s sporadically resolute (“Slipped,” “Don’t Swallow the Cap”) and rattled (“Pink Rabbits”), but the underlying message is that things aren’t quite right. Even if this isn’t his best prose, you feel for and with him. His ear for harmony and his command of his voice, on the other hand, are as sharp as ever. This is most evident on “Sea of Love,” which could square off against anything in the band’s catalogue. This is the National firing on all cylinders. The tumult of Scott Devendorf’s bass meshes in perfectly with his brother’s metronomic pounding, as Berninger’s searing melodies carry the arrangement from one inspired section to the next. The piano-based highlight “Pink Rabbits” sounds like their take on Elliott Smith, and it drips with poignancy: “I was a television version of a person with a broken heart.”

It’s not all solid gold though. Berninger tries out his upper register more than on every other National record combined. While it works for the most part, he sounds as if he’s straining to hit the notes on “Heavenfaced,” which may be the point, but it grates a little when compared to his usual Cognac smoothness. Sharon Van Etten and St. Vincent help round out the vocals, and offer support on a good handful of songs where Berninger may have wandered outside of his comfort zone. On the other side of the coin, there’s “This Is The Last Time,” where he’s is ably held aloft by pacing and harmony alone: “I won’t be vacant anymore,” he promises. It’s a vow that the National could hardly be accused of breaking, even if Trouble Will Find Me is perhaps less colorful than their past three albums. Here, the National are yet again standing atop the mountain they conquered nearly a decade ago. Unpredictable it is not, but taken as a study of sound and mood, it’s kind of perfect.