I'm alone in a hotel room in Chicago. My wife is out of town on business, my two year old is with his grandparents. I have no responsibilities other than to sit in this dark room and listen to the new National album, Trouble Will Find Me. I'm doing this because I'm not ready to give up yet. I want to feel deep, profound, effortless love for this record. Also, coming here was my relationship counselor's suggestion. She didn't suggest it in so many words, but I got the message.
I'm listening so intently to Matt Berninger's voice, it's like we're having a conversation. "Am I the one you think about," he sings, "when you're sitting in your fainting chair drinking pink rabbits?"
"I don't understand what that means," I tell him. "Could you say it again, but with a catchier, more hummable hook?"
"It'll be summer in Dallas/ Before you realize/ That I'll never be/ Anything you ever want me to be."
"It's beginning to seem that way," I agree.
On the surface, Trouble Will Find Me has everything I could want in a National album. It's got smoky baritone vocals, songs about relationships ending badly and then getting analyzed all out of proportion, and the music sounds like what drinking scotch alone at 2 AM tastes like. On paper, I should want to marry this record. But it leaves me cold. I've listened to the whole thing top to bottom almost a half dozen times already, and still nothing. I usually end up checking Facebook somewhere in the middle; the music equivalent of watching Letterman during sex.
Why, a reasonable person might wonder, does this matter? Millions of people don't like new music every day, and they're not fucking babies about it. Just throw the goddamn thing out and find something else to listen to. It matters, smartass, because it signifies a seismic shift in my relationship with an artist. When Radiohead put out In Rainbows and I thought it was just "meh," the band and I drifted apart. I had something special with Ryan Adams Heartbreaker, but Gold felt forced, like date night in a loveless marriage. Has Adams made more albums since? Probably, I don't know. And that's just two of countless artists -- Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the Strokes, Gaslight Anthem -- who had my unconditional love until they made a lousy album that left me empty, and I haven't returned their phone calls since.
I don't want to lose the National. I love them too much. Their songs have become like tattoos. In fact, I couldn't name my 10 favorite National songs without getting all emotional about it. My heart beats a little faster just thinking about that part in "Mr. November" when Berninger starts sing-ranting "I won't fuck us over." We have something rare and beautiful, and Trouble Will Find Me is threatening to ruin that.
I went looking for other National fanatics for advice. I found Dulguun Bayasgalan, the co-administrator of Fuck Yeah! The National, a fan blog on Tumblr. He lives in Ulaanbaatar, a Mongolian city with the coolest name of all time. (You can't say "Ulaanbaatar" without sounding like an angry Klingon.) "You just have to notice them at the right moment," Bayasgalan told me. "I personally like to listen to them in the car or in the dark. Driving out to the desert and listening to them would actually be pretty awesome. Put a little something in the lemonade, of course."
I tried all that. I listened to Trouble Will Find Me in the dark. I listened to it in a car, both while driving and parked. I listened to it while drunk. I made playlists with my favorite National songs interspersed with the new stuff, hoping I could trick myself. I listened to it while dancing with my two-year-old son and trying to coax him into playing air guitar, hoping it would create the same excitement I get from watching that amazing video for "Sea of Love." No such luck. I do not like it in a box, I do not like it with a fox, I do not like it here or there, I do not like it anywhere.
It occurred to me that I might be approaching it the wrong way. I was treating the new National album like a piece of music -- which, okay fine, it technically is. But I want something more from it than just entertainment. I want a long-term emotional bond. I want feelings, even if those feelings are one-sided. So I called somebody who specializes in these sorts of things. Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, a clinical psychologist who's been on the Today show a bunch of times, agreed to be my relationship counselor because she's awesome, and because I didn't specifically use the words "be my relationship counselor."
"Usually when we fall in love at first sight, it isn't for the same reasons we fall in love and stay in love," she told me. "You realize, 'I don't really know this person ... or this music ... so I don't know what they're truly like.' You're putting them into a 'you seem awesome' category and hoping that it's true."
"How do I fix that?" I asked. "Should I try to be more patient? Should I be listening more closely?"
"It's not just about listening," she said. "You have to really hear what they're saying. There are words and then there are the meaning behind those words."
I think I know what she means. It reminds me of my uneasy courting of Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over the Sea. I'd heard nothing but good things from friends -- you might even say we were set up -- but my first impressions weren't promising. "This dude is really into Jesus. I don't see a future here. Whoa, whoa, did he just say 'semen stains the mountain tops'? Ho boy." But I stuck around, despite my misgivings, and it evolved into one of the most meaningful and passionate relationships I've ever had with an inanimate object.
But that was in my 20s, when I was more open to music that didn't sound instantly familiar. I was willing to be patient and take risks. I'm old and lazy now, and I want to be swept off my feet rather than doing the hard work of building an emotional foundation.
"First of all, I'm hearing a lot of judgment you're putting on yourself," Dr. Lombardo told me. "'I should do this, I haven't done it right in the past, it has to work this time, and if it doesn't what's wrong with me?'"
"That's totally what I'm thinking," I agreed.
"You're using the word 'should' a lot," she said. "'I should be better, I should be different.' In psychology, we call that MUSTerbation."
"MUSTerbation. It's all about pressure and stress and self-defeating behavior. Try to be present and in the moment, as opposed to filled with self-judgment. 'Do I like this or do I not like this?' Forget all that stuff. Just be present. Be present with the, uh....
"Stop judging yourself and stop judging the album. Just be with it."
That's how I got to this hotel room. My wife's out of town, my kid's in safe hands, I left my cellphone and laptop on home, and the hotel TV is unplugged. I'm alone with Trouble Will Find Me for the first time. Truly alone. It's just me and an iPod, strapped to me like an IV. We'll be here as long as it takes.
I don't remember when it happened, just that it happened. I had a breakthrough. And it was ... how do I tell you about this? Remember that Seinfeld episode where George Costanza is admitting that he did something mortifying, and his only explanation was, "You know ... I was alone." Yeah. Well, I was alone. But instead of a Glamour magazine, I was alone with a newly released long player with 13 songs about fractured relationships.
I couldn't begin to explain why I did what I did. It wasn't my intention. Maybe all that talk of MUSTerbation put the thought in my head. It's not like any of the songs on Trouble Will Find Me are in any way erotic. It was an accident. My mind was wandering, and I wasn't really listening anymore, and then ... mistakes were made. I say mistakes because "Sea of Love" is a creepy tune. It's definitely pro-paranoia. So when I was ... doing what I was doing ... and then suddenly realized that Berninger was yelling at me "What’d Harvard teach you? What’d Harvard teach you? What’d Harvard teach you?", it was uncomfortable and surreal and the polar opposite of sexy.
It was also the best moment I've had with a new album in 2013.
Trouble Will Find Me won't ever be Boxer or High Violet. It will never be my soul mate. But it does have meaning for me now. It's the girl you get a handjob from on the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World. You're both not sure why it happened, but it was funny and stupid and you'll probably never forget it. And maybe someday you'll walk into a bar and she'll be there and you'll exchange smiles from across the room, because you've got a dirty little secret, and that seems like enough.
You don't marry an album like Trouble Will Find Me. But if you listen in the right context, you can at least have a very weird affair.