Music Reviews
I Am Easy To Find

The National I Am Easy To Find

(4AD) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

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. So where were The National supposed to go?

On I Am Easy to Find, director Mike Mills came to the band with a concept for a film that comprises of a life told through a series of moments. Some of those 164 moments would be seemingly minor (the first lie told) and some much more major (the loss of parents). It was the kind of ambitious premise that The National needed to avoid treading water.

The easiest way of describing the role of the music in the film is that Mills was given access to every stem and sketch of the band’s recordings, on which he edited and put them together however he saw fit. Otherwise, it’s mostly business as usual, with the band retaining control and producing a more conventional record than the film’s soundtrack (Mills is listed as a producer, but his musical influence was limited).

For the first time, The National introduces formal guest vocalists to accompany Alicia Vikander’s performance because, as the band admits, it would have been strange to have a women’s life narrated by Berninger’s increasingly weary baritone. While it has been one of the most common discussions ahead of release, the use of those guests feels incredibly natural. The National has always been a band that requires some patience, but within two or three listens, it’s easy to forget it hasn’t always been this way. Matt Berninger has always been the band’s touch paper—so it’s understandable it may give fans some pause—but it's a change that allows them to play around more than ever before. And they really do.

In places, this album is a refinement of the previous two. Quiet Light's aching description of a relationship breakdown would have fit in perfectly on either, but with strings instead of the harsh electronics, the patience pays off. Most of these songs sound a little lighter, avoiding being as claustrophobic or as boxy as Sleep Well Beast.

Berninger’s lyrics always require listeners to suspend any skepticism and go along with whatever strange metaphor or line of thinking he goes down, and here it is no different. But while the writing on Sleep Well Beast often aimed for bare and heartbreaking, it often landed as frustratingly obvious. That’s no more apparent than with the return of a spoken word monologue on The Pull Of You, which unlike the clunky Walk it Back, contributes to the band sounding as thrilling as they have sounded in years.

It’s worth noting that many of the lines that sound uniquely Berninger come from wife Carin Besser, especially deliberately elaborate “You had no idea how hard I died when you left” (You Had Your Soul With You) and the tragically self-indulgent “I’m the rocks they weigh down the angels with” (Hey Rosey). That being said, Berninger still produces one of the most subtle but devastating lines he has ever written on the title track: “I’m still waiting on you every night with ticker tape."

Many of the guest's voices have been so altered that they’re unrecognizable, which is likely to divide opinion. Gail Ann Dorsey’s appearances stand out, though—on You Had Your Soul With You, her voice cuts through and breathes new life into the established National formula, seemingly giving everyone a lift. It may have been a chance meeting between Aaron Dessner and Dorsey, but how perfect of an accompaniment she proves on both Hey Rosey and Hairpin Turns. It could be enough to make you believe in the so-called butterfly effect displayed in Mills’s film.

If this really is supposed to be life surmised into a series of moments, then it’s probably not surprising that there are a couple of missteps. Oblivions and Roman Holiday never quite reach as interesting a conclusion as they probably should, and their placing at tracks three and four puts the album immediately on the backfoot. The interludes (Dust Swirls In Strange Light, “Her Father In The Pool, Underwater) may have a place in a film, but on an already lengthy album, it seems like unnecessary baggage.

There’s also Not In Kansas, a six-minute stream of consciousness that is as subtle as a song that at one point compares The Strokes’ first two albums to the New Testament. Hearing Berninger, a man who has held little back in the past, be this confessional is insightful, although the partial-cover of Thinking Fellers Union Local 282’s Noble Experiment means the song is a little sickly by its end.

For a band notable for their impressive consistency, this is undoubtedly their most uneven project. The interludes often break momentum (Her Father In The Pool lands in the middle of what would have been a stellar four track run) and the production also often sounds uncharacteristically rough, and the dips in quality are especially notable. There is undoubtedly a ten-track album within this that could be their most exciting and interesting in a decade, but you’ll have to wade through half-finished ideas to find it —which for some won’t be worth the effort.

I Am Easy To Find resembles a closing-down sale, with ideas being thrown around whether they fit or not—even the inclusion of Rylan (first recorded during the High Violet sessions) comes across as a knowing nod. It would be rash to immediately start writing The National’s obituary, but this really does sounds like the band is preparing to wind down, for a period at least. It seems like we’re really no closer to answering that first question. Where do The National go from here? It could be a while before we find out.