The National’s music yearns to be discovered. Each song slowly unfolds; every successive listen reveals another layer, a new, subtle turn of phrase or exquisitely crafted melody. Everything is meticulously constructed, yet always feels organic and made with heart. Their music rewards attention and immersion and is packed with the emotional payoff of a deep, gradually unfolding love affair. I Am Easy to Find, the band’s eighth studio album, takes this gradual reveal to another level. At 63 minutes, it’s their longest release to date, offering both length and depth, as well as a standing invitation to explore.
While the album is influenced by chamber music and avant garde theater, it isn’t a total departure for the group. Songs like “So Far So Fast” (featuring Lisa Hannigan) and “Quiet Light” (a duet with Gail Ann Dorsey) bubble with skittering electronics, layered piano, and wiry guitars that reinforce Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s skillful way of turning slowly building repetition into heartbreaking crescendo. It’s also a treat to finally get a studio version of creepy-awesome, sad but oddly triumphant live staple / fan favorite “Rylan,” lent extra texture here by Kate Stables.
“Not in Kansas” is the record’s startling centerpiece. It’s a stretched out and sparse—and highly accurate—expression of the hope and heartbreak inherent in being alive in the year 2019. It’s almost spoken word, reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s way of blurring the lines between poetry and music. Matt Berninger’s baritone shivers with fear and expectation as he searches for solace and the fortitude to know what to do while staring down indifference to climate change, rising nationalism, religious hypocrisy, and emboldened white supremacy. It’s a vulnerable meditation on no longer being able to recognize your environment, and the small, daily things we do to keep from being crushed by the enormity of it all.
Filmmaker Mike Mills is the nexus these songs coalesced around. His invitation to collaborate on a film lent focus and direction to what had been a loose collection of songs left over from the sessions for the band’s previous record. Mills’ perspective, coupled with the performances of the film’s star Alicia Vikander, shapes the album’s mood and intent. It’s often difficult to tell where I Am Easy to Find the film and I Am Easy to Find the record begin and end. This symbiosis is intentional; the insight gained from these parallel, multimedia expressions of related ideas is one of the reasons this is the most psychologically rich National album yet.
The album’s brightest stars are the women who feature throughout. Their vocal, songwriting, and conceptual contributions are an invigorating presence for a band who seemed to publicly wrestle with the idea of whether they had anything left to say. It’s additional light and shade for a band that’s often thought of as music by and for depressed middle-aged white guys. It’s also a far more public extension of the regular, integral input Matt Berninger’s wife, writer Carin Besser, has had on the band’s lyrics over the years. (She wrote or co-wrote the words to six of I Am Easy to Find’s 16 songs.)
At their core, the National’s songs have always been explorations of emotional states and mental health, as well as discussions between partners. By featuring numerous women’s voices, I Am Easy to Find is a natural evolution of that conversational nature. (Witness Berninger’s gutting back and forth with Sharon Van Etten on “The Pull of You”.) The record plays as the arc of a life together, one forged from compromise, shared joy and loss, and communication. It’s an emotional reminder of the power of cooperation; of cultivating allies, not adversaries. | Mike Rengel