The National

I Am Easy to Find

4AD

May 17, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Not long into "You Had Your Soul With You" one realizes The National's new album I Am Easy to Find is closely related to their last one, 2017's Sleep Well Beast: they share the same quest for meaning in a fractured world, the same skittering heartbeat, shimmery melodies and abrupt endings. But mid-song, the familiar baritone becomes unrecognizable: it's not Matt Berninger. It's not even a male voice. You're unsure. "Quiet Light" follows and floating atop piano and percussive beats Berninger's hushed tone returns, then a woman's vocals. 

I Am Easy to Find is a National album like no other. It features female voices. Not just Berninger's wife Carin Besser's lyrical credits. There's Gail Ann Dorsey (best known for her work with David Bowie) a guest vocalist on five tracks, Kate Stables (This Is the Kit), Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, Eve Owen, Pauline de Lassus (aka Mina Tindle), and the Brooklyn Youth Choir.  The catalyst for this timely intervention was filmmaker Mike Mills.

The 20th Century Women director had reached out to The National after their last album offering to direct a music video. He had Oscar-winning actress Alicia Vikander in tow. She had seen Mills' 2010 film Beginners and was keen to work with him. After being given a Dropbox of cast offs from Sleep Well Beast, Mills together with Vikander crafted a short film: a woman's entire life from birth to death played out in 24 minutes, sans CGI or prosthetic make-up. Vikander, a trained dancer, would distill the essence—from being a newborn to puberty, adulthood and senescence—through specific and at once age-identifiable gestures. The Nouvelle Vague-like device Mills employed in Beginners of color-block screens with subtitles would do the rest.

In an unprecedented turn of art imitating life, imitating art—the short film spurred Berninger and Besser to write more songs expanding on the film's themes beyond the usual male self-loathing and navel-gazing to include a wider purview on isolation, marriage, infidelity, parenthood, and mortality. The film brilliantly flattens time out, placing quotidian moments such as a child being read bedtime stories, alongside pivotal ones like the onset of menopause or death. When it became evident that The National was writing essentially about one woman, and hence, how women walk through the world, the band felt their usual scope of voices had to grow too. 

They've made space for those who don't often have seats here and it's admirable, easily incorporating the lovely duet "Oblivions" and "I Am Easy to Find" into this new canon. The sweeping beauty of "Hey Rosey" that teams Dorsey's deep tremor with Berninger's wine-soaked melancholia, both in search of "that feeling" when you love someone "like there's razors in it" is elegiac. In an Los Angeles screening Q&A, Mills admitted that the project developed in an "organic, loosey-goosey manner" which was advantageous in many ways but a tighter edit to release the drag of a 16 track-heavy album wouldn't have gone awry.

Essentials include the driving "Rylan;" where Berninger moves beyond solipsism with Bryan Devendorf's exquisite pacing on drums, rattling at the seams with the Dessner twins' detailed soundscapes. "The Pull of You," where two opposing voices are connected but at odds, tenuously delivers disjointed excuses in spoken words. It then forces Berninger to the higher register: "Maybe we'll talk it out inside a car/With rain falling around us," imbibing every word with ever-higher stakes. But there's no reason to think it's going to end well.

Breaking away from the chorus-verse-format further is "Not In Kansas." The trio of female voices function like a Greek chorus reflecting the litany of real-world problems  ("Ohio's in a downward spiral/Can't go back there anymore/Since alt-right opium went viral" and "I'm a child at the border") back at our weary hero and offering him untenable after-life solutions. 

"I Am Easy to Find" is a misnomer in the film and album; we recognize the gestures, the moments and heartbreak but never really know these characters. Just like we think we know Berninger and his wife, their vanilla lives. Or indeed ourselves, our partners, our parents; the patterns we can't break. The album's triumph is in shoring up our capacity to keep searching, making sense of the chaos and loving no matter what, summed up beautifully in the end with "There's a million battles that I'm never gonna win anyway/I'm still waiting for you every night with ticker tape, ticker tape." It can't be a celebration each time, but in surmounting failings large and minute, this eighth National album posits, sometimes it should be. (www.americanmary.com

Author rating: 8.5/10

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