Release Date: May 17, 2019
Record label: 4AD
"how far is a light year?" When you get right down to it, every song The National have ever written is about distance. Distance, the lack of it, and the ways people are transformed by those extremes. This has never been more plain than on I Am Easy to Find, an album which otherwise steadfastly refuses to make things simple or easy. When the album title was announced I made the connection to Trouble Will Find Me's lonely, haunting closing track like everybody else.
This line, delivered from the luminous voice of guest vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey on "So Far So Fast" brings to mind the cover of The National 's 2001 self-titled debut. On it drummer Bryan Devendorf, clad in aviators, leans out of an arrestingly blue swimming pool. It was always an image somewhat at odds with that records subject matter; the angst-ridden despair of being trapped in a soul-crushing white collar job, and the resignation to a future already set out.
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.
Where I am, I don't know where As one of only a handful of indie bands that can stake a claim to some brand of mainstream name recognition, the National exist in a paradox: established enough for their fans to "ooh" and "ahh" over every new lyric about urban ennui and fresh Bryan Devendorf drum fill; old enough for those who long ago dismissed their gray palettes and Matt Berninger's navel-gazing to wave away yet another release about distances and quiet tragedies. It's a pretty sweet place to be, all things considered, and one that the National have fought for and defiantly earned - no small feat when so many bands that came up with them in the '00s long ago drifted off to real lives, broken up only by reunion tours when the bills come due. 2017's Sleep Well Beast confirmed that the group was continuing to settle into something of a sweet spot, still definitively a "National" record, but with enough tasteful inflections of mood and tone to ward off declarations that they were resting on their laurels.
Where are The National supposed to go from here? It's a question that has followed the band throughout their career, but so far they've always seemed to come up with the right answer. 2017's Sleep Well Beast very much seemed like the pinnacle: they were festival headliners, they won a Grammy and, after previous albums were fraught with in-studio tension, were able to work together with relative ease. For once, everything seemed to be going well.
This eighth National album is the accompaniment to a 25-minute art-house movie. And yet - lush, profound, experimental - it's also much more than that To immerse truly yourself in this record, you're going to have stop thinking of The National as just five 'sad dads’. Think of them as part of a community. You should probably not think of this as your straight-up rock album either.
The National's eighth didn't come together in any usual way. Written and recorded alongside a short film of the same name from director Mike Mills, 'I Am Easy To Find' is a scrapbook of the band’s last few years, torn apart and stuck back together in fresh new ways. The main change here is vocally, where Matt Berninger delegates nearly half of the album's lyrics to female voices, who add new textures and perspectives, as well as allow the frontman to write from different perspectives, turning the lens outwards for the first time.
For 20 years, Ohio veterans The National have been a byword for consistency. Their albums (particularly from 2005's breakout, Alligator, onwards) have been of a reliably gold-plated quality; their oeuvre only ever several degrees removed from brooding indie rock; their subject matter the self-questioning ennui familiar to most of us. Eighth album, I Am Easy To Find, starts off familiarly enough.
There's a lot to marvel at on any National album: the regality, the musicianship, the compositional flourishes, the ornate displays of sublimated rage. The ex-Brooklynites are among the smallest handful of '00s bands to close out the '10s with a higher stock than what they entered with; theirs is one of the richest dynamics in indie rock. But for all they're good at, every album has been first and foremost a litmus test on singer Matt Berninger.
The National's eighth record came from prosaic beginnings. Director Mike Mills -- not to be confused with the bassist from R.E.M., as he so often is -- invited Matt Berninger to collaborate, a notion that quickly spawned two projects: a short film from Mills and a new album from the National, both entitled I Am Easy to Find. Mills is credited as a co-producer on the album, a bit of a stretch considering how he is by no means a musician, but his contributions did indeed help the album take shape.
If you haven't kept your ear to the ground, The National's eighth studio album I Am Easy To Find may be something of a surprise. Despite occasional female vocal support over the years, with Matt Berninger's wife Carin Besser the most easily recollected, The National are a band defined by Berninger's distinct baritone. This time however there is a plethora of female vocalist contributions.
The Lowdown: Over the course of two decades, The National have expertly captured the modern American condition, a portrait of failed promises, ennui, and a restless undercurrent simmering beneath. At the core of their practice has been a sense of community through collaborations with like-minded artists. Through their numerous side projects, charity compilations like 2016's Day of the Dead, the various festivals they curate around the world, and their work composing, writing, and producing with other artists, the members of The National are always searching for new ideas and practices to bring people together through their work.
D o the National do a lot with a little, or a little with a lot? On the one hand, theirs is a lush, grandly developed sound, in which every element fits into place, where textures and tones brush up against each other to create an effect that's often overwhelming. On the other hand, their desire to never be obvious means the National's catalogue is hardly replete with bangers: they've created a musical universe that, while richly melodic, is more about mood and texture than big hooks. All of which comes to mind strongly on their eighth album, which is rich with lyrical references to artists whose reputations were built on big hooks: the title track quotes from Echos Myron by Guided By Voices.
The National, despite what their current geography might tell you, will always be a Midwestern band. While the narratives of their songs have been inspired by Brooklyn, and countless other places they've been on tour. Those narratives have always been delivered in a way that is decidedly Midwest. You can tell these guys had to find a way to pass the time between Afghan Whigs shows in Cincinnati one weekend and a Brainiac or Guided by Voices show in Dayton a few weeks later.
'I Am Easy To Find' is the project The National have spent their entire career striving to curate. The electronic experiment of 'Sleep Well Beast' has been continued as the Ohio-born, Brooklyn-raised brooding quintet explore new textures and venture further into the art of alternative-rock. The 16-track, hour-long record is accompanied with a Mike Mills film.
There is one radiant voice that keeps the National's more-subdued-than-usual new album buoyant, and it doesn't belong to any of the band members. It's the voice of Gail Ann Dorsey, longtime bassist and backing singer for David Bowie. For its eighth album, "I Am Easy to Find" (4AD), the National shook things up by bringing in a clutch of female vocalists to share the microphone with singer Matt Berninger.
T wenty years into their career, the National have had a radical rethink for their eighth album. Film-maker Mike Mills has come on board to challenge the way they record, as well as cooking up a complementary but standalone short film of the same name, starring Alicia Vikander, but the bigger change finds frontman Matt Berninger sharing centre stage with - and frequently ceding it to - a string of female co-vocalists, including Sharon Van Etten, longtime Bowie foil Gail Ann Dorsey and Lisa Hannigan. The resulting songs still sound unmistakably like the National - thoughtful, refined indie with restrained guitars and inventive rhythms, courtesy of drummer Bryan Devendorf - even if they're at times smothered beneath choirs and strings.