I have a curious relationship with The National. I’m a fan, make no mistake, have been for a long time now, since Alligator. I even interviewed Matt Berninger in a bus just outside of the Apollo in Manchester. But, with each release, pretty much from Boxer on, I’ve found that it takes me about 18 months to warm completely to a release. I find that I’m comfortable with the latest National record by the time they tend to release the next album.
I Am Easy to Find comes relatively hard on the heels of Sleep Well Beast and I have to say – I’m not yet comfortable with Sleep Well Beast.
There are songs that I like on there a lot (Day I Die, Back of the Gym) but the album hasn’t coalesced for me. It’s not an old friend for me yet. And now we have I Am Easy to Find, 16 brand new songs – and I have to say, it’s the first National album since Alligator that has hit me like love at first sight.
First off, the stuff you probably already know: this album is one of the results of a collaboration with film-maker Mike Mills (responsible for Thumbsucker, Beginners & 20th Century Women) – the other being a short film of the same name starring Alicia Vikander (of Tomb Raider fame). If you’ve not seen the film, its an elliptical gallop through a woman’s life in which Vikander never visibly ages (in terms of wrinkles) whilst playing the child as a child, the girl as a girl, the woman as a woman, etc. Mills uses subtitles in a way that recalls REM’s Everybody Hurts video, and interstitial colour to represent (well, lots of things but presumably one of the things is) the passing of ages. The album that The National have created with Mills is sampled throughout (there is always music playing in the film) but it’s not a case of track by track, what you get are portions and segments mixed together in a fluid way. I’ve watched it a couple of times now and it’s very beautiful (in terms of its look), somewhat pretentious (as you’d expect – Mills is on record as saying he likes pretentious things, you can tell watching I Am Easy to Find (the movie)) and yet interesting, as an artefact that stands in close relation to the latest National album.
The first track on the album clues you in to what you can expect from the latest outing. It begins with a sampled guitar sound, cut up in such a way as you might quickly glance towards whatever you’re using to play the album – is the needle jumping? Is the laser skipping? Then Bryan Devendorf’s drums begin (Devendorf’s drum patterns are so integral to the National sound), as mathematical (to paraphrase Finn from Adventure Time) as they ever have been. Ah, you might think: prototypical National, a song that wouldn’t have sounded wildly out of place on Boxer. And then, two minutes in, calm suddenly prevails, there is a rush of strings and a woman, Gail Ann Dorsey, begins to sing. Dorsey’s vocal works here in the same way that Marcy May’s vocal works on the Afghan Whigs’ song, My Curse…
it brings maturity, wisdom, it grounds all of the mayhem that led up to it – and it’s frankly one of the best moments in any National song up to this point.
“I have order to my heart / Every word I said / You had no idea how hard I died when you left…” Dorsey also sings on ‘Roman Holiday’ ( a song about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, inspired by Judy Linn’s book of photographs) and ‘Hey Rosey’.
But Dorsey is not the only vocalist who has been drafted in. I Am Easy to Find is a village of voices. It feels like such a generous record. Again and again, the band get out of the way to let the songs draw on what they need to find life. So Bryce Dessner’s wife, Pauline de Lassus (better known by her stage name, Mina Tindle), sings lead vocals on ‘Oblivions’ (which harks bark to Exile Vilify in some ways whilst also conjuring up a sound not wildly dissimilar to The XX). The title track shares vocal duties between Berninger and This is the Kit’s Kate Staples. Where is Her Head sees Aaron Dessner sing with Eve Owens. So Far So Fast (one of my favourites over the first few listens) is sung entirely by Lisa Hannigan (whose album At Swim is well worth checking out if you haven’t done that yet). Her Father in the Pool, Dust Swirls in Strange Light and Underwater are all blessed with the choral harmonies of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. I Am Easy to Find is awash in other voices.
In some senses, this is The National as you’ve always known them, their ongoing evolution as gentle as it’s ever been; in others, this is a radical reframing of their aesthetic which seems to have emerged as a result of all of the side projects that various members of the band are engaged in. So many of the songs work as call and response (listen to ‘Not in Kansas’ to see what I mean: Berninger firmly in Kozalek-form, reading what feel like jumbled diary entries about the state of the world and listening to REM again, only for a serene female accompaniment to act like soothing balm), mediating the gruffer ‘dude rock’ elements The National have been doing their best to shake for years. The hardest thing about writing a review at this point is that there are so many different directions the record wants to take you in at once: musically, lyrically, you could talk about this shit all day. You can get snagged by a single song, wanting to replay, to force feed familiarity. It’s the album equivalent of wanting to sit up all night with somebody you only met hours before, knowing this is a person you will love for the rest of your days.
All told, on twenty or so listens, there’s no duff track, no filler (which hurts me a little – I want to complain about something, you know?). This feels like the best album The National have ever made (and in album closer ‘Light Years’ quite possibly the best song they’ve ever made). Simple as that.
Words by Pete Wild.