Review | The National - I Am Easy to Find
The veteran indie-rockers return for their longest and most ambitious album to date- a series of experiments which hit far more often than they miss.
The National are arguably one of the most enduring acts of the ‘00s indie scene. Their combination of guitar-based post-punk revival, subtle songwriting, and Cohen-esque confessional lyrics, tied together with frontman Matt Berninger’s warm baritone, made them the opposite of a flash in the pan: a band who never enjoyed (or were destroyed by) media hype, yet have consistently delivered and gradually evolved.
A statement from record label 4AD's website sums up the aims of their eighth, and longest, studio album: “I Am Easy to Find is a 24-minute film by Mike Mills starring Alicia Vikander, and a 68-minute album by the National. The former is not the video for the latter; the latter is not the soundtrack to the former… The movie was composed like a piece of music; the music was assembled like a film... The frontman and natural focal point was deliberately and dramatically sidestaged in favour of a variety of female voices, nearly all of whom have long been in the group’s orbit.”
For a group so synonymous with the sound of its singer’s distinctive voice, this is a brave feat. However, the talents of the rest of the band, as well as the impressibe array of guest collaborators, make up for it. One pair of brothers, Scott and Bryan Devendorf, hold down the rhythm section with impressive accuracy, while the other pair, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, provide guitar, piano and synth textures that give the songs a rich and majestic quality.
Opener “You Had Your Soul With You” starts with twisted, distorted guitar loops, before the band come in. The song is more instant and sprightly than most of the band’s repertoire, and certainly more than the rest of this album. Frontman Matt Berninger shares vocal duties here with Gail Ann Dorsey, the first of numerous guest vocalists on the album, a departure for the band. Songs such as this one and the title track showcase just how good Berninger’s low rumble sounds in duet with female vocalists, and evokes Nick Cave’s ‘90s ballads with PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue - which is no bad thing! The title track’s layered vocals by Kate Stables form an ethereal, dreamy outro which fades into the similar wordless vocals of “Her Father In the Pool”, barely one minute long and the first instrumental (or rather, lyricless) track on a National album. Interludes such as this one and penultimate track “Underwater”, are another example of new territory for the band.
The sparse drum machine of “Roman Holiday” evokes the band’s previous album Sleep Well Beast and its increased flirtation with electronics- but this is no EDM banger, and is especially downbeat and low-key. When weeping violins and fuzzy guitars gradually enter near the end of the track, a crescendo is suggested but never quite materialises, the song instead cutting off abruptly. This track is the most prominent example of the moments on I Am Easy to Find which, despite containing all of the right individual ingredients for a National song, adds up to no more than the sum of its parts.
Thankfully, there is no shortage of fantastic material on here. “Quiet Light” is classic National, with forlorn piano chords juxtaposed with Bryan Devendorf’s busy, angular drums and Berninger’s profound, observational lyricism- “I used to fall asleep to you talking to me / I don't listen to anything now”. Devendorf’s frantic, exhilarating drumming has always been one of the crucial components that make The National stand out from similarly dour and downbeat indie acts, “Where Is Her Head” being the best example here- the drums sounding almost chaotic enough to lose control of themselves, yet controlled enough to hold together the disparate elements of the track (and, indeed, the album).
On “Oblivions”, Mina Tindle’s voice is gorgeously vulnerable and emotive, and the fact that she gets a whole verse to herself minus Berninger is one of the album’s more successful gambles. This song feels almost about to fall apart at the seams, as if it is held together by the most fragile of bonds- as is the uncertain relationship between the two narrators: “Do you think you can carry me over this threshold / Over and over again into oblivion?” On the film-score-esque “Hey Rosey”, Gail Ann Dorsey steals the show with her confident and controlled vocals, to a backdrop of distorted synth bass and heart-rending, diving violin sweeps.
“The Pull of You” almost appeared on Sleep Well Beast, and it sounds like it- that album’s mix of splintered, rapid-fire drum fills and synth textures is apparent. Both Berninger and Lisa Hannigan give fantastic vocal performances here, moving from mumbled talking to impassioned shouts, and back again. The album’s fractured nature is most apparent here, as well as the poignancy of its lyrics:
“What was it you always said? We’re connected by a thread If we’re ever far apart I’ll still feel the pull of you”
Where the album’s disjointed structure pays off best is the sublime “Not in Kansas”, which starts out a simple reverbed-guitar-led ballad with Berninger’s trademark vulnerability. Between Berninger’s verses are piano-backed lullaby choruses sung by a choir of women. This song sees the welcome return of Berninger’s tendency for bizarre yet evocative and memorable lyrics- its dryly funny, stream-of-consciousness lyrics reference Annette Bening, REM, and punching Nazis.
“So Far, So Fast” is the ultimate slow-burn, building so gently to a layered crescendo- reminiscent of seminal post-rock act Sigur Ros- that you barely notice the build before it fades away into another guest-vocalist-led track, “Dust Swirls in Strange Light”. This track, on which Berninger’s voice is entirely absent, is built around the stunning harmonies of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus singing abstract yet vivid snippets of imagery such as “the feeling of anger / the end of her street / time in buildings / time in cars / could she run forever?”
The musical arrangements of the Dessner brothers really shine on this album. On the magnificent “Hairpin Turns”, analogue synths and rich, melancholy piano motifs conjure a stunningly cathartic atmosphere. I Am Easy to Find puts textures and soundscapes, rather than hooks and choruses, at the forefront. The songs are mostly restrained - there is no “Apartment Story” or “Mr November”, and certainly no “Turtleneck” or “Abel”. The closest to the band's earlier sound that fans will find here is long-time fan favourite “Rylan”, which dates back to 2011, and finally appears here near the end of the album. The stately demeanour yet anthemic sweep of this track is reminiscent of live singalongs “Terrible Love” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, and is one of the stand-outs of this collection.
The album ends with the gorgeously simplistic piano ballad "Light Years". Berninger’s refrain of “Oh the glory of it all / Was lost on me” is movingly bittersweet, and something about the way this track refuses to build to any crescendo makes it even more so.
As a collection lasting over an hour, this would have benefited from a little more dynamic variance- a couple of the tracks being a little faster-paced and more direct would possibly have resulted in a more eclectic listen. However, the slight shift in focus away from Berninger's perspective and towards that of female counterparts (as represented by the album cover, a close-up shot of Alicia Vikander) adds textural and emotional depth that makes up for the lack of heavier cuts.
I Am Easy to Find presents a delicate balance between the orchestral and the electronic, the male and the female, the light and the dark. A lot of the music sounds positively heavenly, but don’t be deceived - as Berninger puts it, “there’s a little bit of hell in everyone”.
Best song: Rylan
Worst song: Underwater