The National – I Am Easy to Find
The indie stalwarts' eighth full-length is a thrillingly ambitious, deeply collaborative game-changer
Two years ago, as The National geared up to release their seventh full-length, there was a sense that it might represent a sea change.
They’d been debuting new material throughout 2016, and the crowd-shot footage that duly surfaced suggested that one of the quintessential guitar bands of the 21st century were beginning to flirt with electronic inflections. Then, in May, The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness appeared to confirm suspicions of a change of pace. Between a murkier sonic palette and some uncharacteristically freewheeling guitar work from Aaron Dessner, it looked as if a group not previously known for dramatic deviations from the form book were ready to make a bold stride into the unknown.
Ultimately, that’s not what transpired. It’s true that synths whirred and flickered throughout Sleep Well Beast, augmenting the traditional subtle piano and stately strings, and it’s also worth pointing out that there was the occasional wholesale departure: take the thoroughly impressionistic title track, for instance, or the spiky, divisive Turtleneck. For the most part, though, it felt very much like the sort of National record we’d come to expect, with a few extra accoutrements blended in to the picture with typical nuance; even when they were interpolating Karl Rove’s sinister 2004 prediction of the age of fake news (Walk It Back) or finding room for stuttering, semi-programmed percussion (Guilty Party, I’ll Still Destroy You).
The National haven’t turned records around particularly quickly since they made their breakthrough with Boxer in 2007 – the gap between Sleep Well Beast and its predecessor, 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, spanned more than four years. It’s hard to know, then, what’s most remarkable about I Am Easy to Find; that it’s the fastest they’ve released a follow-up since Alligator followed hot on the heels of Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers in 2005, or that, at just shy of 64 minutes, they’ve made their longest record yet in such a short space of time. In truth, it’s neither. It’s that I Am Easy to Find delivers what Sleep Well Beast promised to.
It’s an album defined by real compositional daring. Most prominent is a wholehearted embrace of the spirit of collaboration by the band. They have never wanted for sparkling supporting casts, especially in recent years; Trouble Will Find Me’s backing vocals were supplied by Annie Clark and Sharon Van Etten, while Sleep Well Beast brought in Lisa Hannigan and Justin Vernon in similar capacities, and also featured contributions from German experimentalists Mouse on Mars and the equally adventurous Brooklyn duo Buke and Gase. That’s all they ever felt like, though – guests lending a helping hand. On I Am Easy to Find, The National take the courageous step of sharing top billing with a slew of illustrious peers.
Matt Berninger is the band’s lead vocalist and yet it only feels as if he actually takes on lead vocals on two of the 16 tracks here – Quiet Light and Light Years. Every other song sees at least one featured vocalist afforded so much prominence as to effectively turn the tracks into duets, or trios, or choruses. Hannigan returns as one-third of a front three that also includes newcomers Kate Stables (of This Is the Kit) and Gail Ann Dorsey, best known for playing bass in David Bowie’s band, a stint that covered his final six tours as well as four albums from Earthling in 1997 to 2013's The Next Day.
Between the three of them, they offer genuine breadth; Stables’ understated and flexible delivery makes her a natural replacement for Van Etten, who makes just the one, spoken word appearance this time out. Dorsey’s voice is another proposition entirely; deep and tonally rich, the striking entrance that she makes midway through opener You Had Your Soul with You provides the first indicator that The National have made considerable revisions to their own rulebook this time out. She’s similarly vibrant on Hey Rosey, although Roman Holiday proves she can dial it back, too.
The one track to bring the three women together provides the album’s musical axis. Not in Kansas initially appears routine; Berninger in conversational, almost stream-of-consciousness mode as he talks about 'binging hard on Annette Bening' and 'listening to R.E.M. again' alongside nods to, among other cultural touchpoints, The Godfather, Broadcast News and the first two Strokes albums – all over a simple, melodic guitar line. Breaking this up, though, is a would-be chorus that has Dorsey, Hannigan and Stables harmonising in hymnal fashion on a snippet from Noble Experiment, a 1994 track by eccentric cult favourites Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. That sounds like a jarringly oblique left turn on paper and, as stylishly as the band handle it in practice, it still represents fresh ground broken – it’s The National trading sweeping drama for subtle experimentation.
It’s not a one-off, either. I Am Easy to Find is littered with these ambitious flourishes, all of which add up to make a much broader and more pointed statement of offbeat intent. Several tracks take the freeform blueprint that Sleep Well Beast’s title track offered up and run with it, particularly the softly chaotic Where Is Her Head and Dust Swirls in Strange Light – the latter featuring ghostly backing from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
On others, the assertion that collaboration forms the bedrock of I Am Easy to Find is further backed by strong evidence of the influence of their contemporaries’ own work; The Pull of You and So Far So Fast, both of which feature Hannigan, nod heavily towards the subdued electronic greyscale of her handsome 2016 solo effort At Swim. Even the long-awaited studio version of Rylan, originally penned for Trouble Will Find Me, has been reconfigured to sit neatly alongside the newer material, much like Radiohead’s True Love Waits was for A Moon Shaped Pool; staccato drums, tweaked lyrics and a soothing turn from Stables all attest to that.
Tying everything together is the conceptual bent that director Mike Mills lends to proceedings. Coming off the back of his gorgeous 2017 feature 20th Century Women, he would have had every right to feel confident when he contacted Berninger cold about the possibility of working together. But could he really have envisioned that his contributions would be woven so indelibly into the fabric of I Am Easy to Find that the band would insist he pose as a sixth member in the latest round of press photography, and that Berninger would enlist his help with the writing of the album’s lyrics? As is always the case with a new National record, the untangling of its themes will be a process that takes longer than is afforded to critics prior to release and, you suspect, the true weight of Mills’ contribution will take a while to truly present itself.
Still, what he has done is produce an arresting and elegant 24-minute short to accompany the album; it stars Alicia Vikander, who also appears on the cover. It might look like an indulgence of their status as one of the world’s most beloved and well-respected indie rock bands that they can have an Oscar-winning actress and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter work so prominently alongside them, but instead, it feels like a quietly audacious exercising of the kind of creative freedom that only a select few groups of their stature possess.
It’s the sound, perhaps, of what happens when, after early years defined by struggle, a band finds both personal and artistic fulfilment. Berninger has transitioned from a thorny presence on stage and in interviews to a weed-smoking, meme-friendly Instadad, and the Dessner twins seem capable of pursuing their every musical whim (classical composition for Bryce, production work for Aaron) all the while still writing and touring relentlessly.
Whatever the cause – and whyever it’s taken them until now to reach this point – I Am Easy to Find is the product of The National doing what they wanted, rather than what was expected of them. On this evidence, they would be well served to be a little bit more selfish, a little bit more often.