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REVIEW: The National – ‘I Am Easy To Find’ (4AD)


In a sentence:

Adopting a rotating cast of female co-vocalists and embracing more influences than ever before, ‘I Am Easy To Find’ represents the most ambitious album by The National yet.

It’s the hallmark of a truly great band that, when they achieve the apex of their commercial success, they use the platform they’ve gained to challenge their audiences. So it proves with The National in 2019. Having taken the best part of 20 years to achieve their prominence as a kind of thinking man’s alternative to stadium-filling indie like Coldplay, their response has been to deliver their longest, most expansive and most ambitious album to date, building upon the slight change of tone and delivery suggested with 2017’s chart-topping Sleep Well Beast. Accompanied by a short film of the same name, a black-and-white piece which stars Alicia Vikander and which tells the story of a woman’s life compressed into 24 minutes of picaresque sub-titled clips and directed by Oscar-winner Mike Mills, who also co-produced the album itself, I Am Easy To Find feels similarly frantic in attempting to cover as much ground as possible. The National are successful on two counts – in enlarging their palette to take in more sonic influences and inspirations than ever before, and retaining their identity in doing so.

The most crucial change is around lead singer Matt Berninger, until now the focal point of all the gracefully expressed rage and ennui of The National’s music, no longer has the spotlight all to himself. On I Am Easy To Find, he shares most of the songs with a rotating cast of female voices who cut through or under his emotions, offering proceedings a different perspective. David Bowie’s long-time bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan, This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables, Sharon Van Etten, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus all appear. Many lyrics are co-written between Berninger and his wife Carin Besser. As a result, many songs have the same sense of self-effacement and reflection as Leonard Cohen’s latter-day work. They become conversations, not soliloquys, and his perspectives become less singular and more universal.

On the graceful title track ‘I Am Easy To Find’, on the difficulty of forging emotional connections and finding happiness, Berninger sounds crestfallen on lyrics like “Who do I think I’m kidding? / I’m still standing in the same place where you left me standing” but Kate Stables mirrors the same emotions, preventing it from being a mope-fest. The sepulchral ‘Oblivions’, however, sees Mina Tindle and Berninger talking over each other with lyrics that don’t scan, while the classically National percussion of ‘The Pull Of You’ featuring Lisa Hannigan and the orchestral, distorted ‘Hey Rosey’, with Gail Ann Dorsey’s almost baritone vocals, both centre around uncertainty and risk in relationships, but do so in dialogues. ‘Rylan’, a song that’s existed since 2010, is a sturdy and emotive track about childhood, the use of the non-gender-specific name deliberate. All these moments speak to a more careful and considered writing endeavour, and it’s one that The National succeed handsomely in.

Music video for ‘Light Years’

The other primary aspect in which I Am Easy To Find is subtly different from its predecessors is in its sonic textures. The beautifully arranged strings, the synthesised drum-pad percussion and stacked, clashing voices all contribute to the album’s prevailing mood of quiet resignation and defeat. From the scrambled electronics of the jittery, enervating opener ‘You Had Your Soul With You’ to the utterly beautiful piano part on the wonderful ‘Light Years’ that brings it to a close, the tendency is to try to embrace different ideas and resolve those threads. The stunning ‘Not In Kansas’, in which Berninger compares the Bible to first two Strokes albums and Godfather movies and uses imageries of empty swimming pools and revisiting R.E.M. to evoke a heartrending sense of inevitable change and a loss of purpose and vigour in life as one gets older, is the finest example of this. The fact that these songs sound so familiar, instantly admirable and simply very National-esque is testament to how well all these changes have been incorporated and executed.

As an introduction to The National, I Am Easy To Find is perhaps overly long and therefore unsuitable next to a Boxer or High Violet, with a couple of its myriad ideas failing to connect with as much resonance as the band might have desired. The clattering ‘Where Is Her Head’ and the almost-psychedelic jam with synths on ‘So Far So Fast’ are the main offenders, making the middle of the record drag, while recent single ‘Hairpin Turns’, despite being absolutely fine and whose striking video features Israeli dancer Sharon Eyal, feels like a trick that The National have turned many times before. But these failures are largely down to the group leaning into their artier sides of the natures, and that approach pays dividends much more often than not.

Music video for ‘Hairpin Turns’

After having endured/enjoyed such a long and slow ascent to their position of critical worship and mass fandom, it would have been perfectly easy, even understandable, for The National to rest on their laurels and simply churn out album after album. But, as Sleep Well Beast and now I Am Easy To Find illustrate, Matt Berninger and co. are far from that point, even nearly two decades into their career, instead committed to pushing their artistry as far as it can go, pushing back against the labels that have been often applied to them and coming up with some of their most rewarding work. (8/10) (Ed Biggs)

Listen to I Am Easy To Find by The National here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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