[sic] Magazine

The National – I Am Easy To Find

Listening to the indie institution that is The National over the past almost-20 years has been akin to repeatedly sliding into a comfy cardigan and pair of slippers after a hard day’s work and their latest album, I Am Easy To Find, houses plenty more similarly luxurious material. The band’s first studio LP since 2017’s middling Sleep Well Beast, it’s another album that hails squarely from The National canon too, but – like Sleep Well Beast – it also blows in from an unusual direction thanks to its varied contributors. Then they held sway over the instrumentation – part electro oddity, part calypso chill and part time-signature-screwed skronk – here, with a more neutral and expected instrumental palette, they dominate the vocals.

Ever-mumbling frontman Matt Berninger is the voice of The National for a reason though, his trademark low, lonely register the magnetism to which many are drawn. Hearing him challenged, outdone, sung over and in partnership duet is therefore initially shocking, this “fabric of … identities” furthermore entirely comprised of female voices apart from Berninger himself. No less than Sharon Van Etten and Mina Tindle play their part though, so too many other voices for hire. Credit to The National then for trying something new even if, again, with risk comes both reward and failure.

At an overlong 16 tracks that last more than an hour, the result is like a sprawling soundtrack curated by The National, an evening with The National and friends, if you will. This is perhaps unsurprising when you learn that I Am Easy To Find is the sister of a 24-minute film of the same name directed by Mike Mills. Both parties are at pains to point out however that “The former is not the video for the latter; the latter is not the soundtrack to the former. The two projects are playfully hostile siblings that love to steal from each other.”

All this plays havoc however with I Am Easy To Find (the album)’s content. Even under invitation, Berninger was never going to give up the limelight easily. Long-time David Bowie bandmate Gail Ann Dorsey is forced into a glitchy, dull mess of skittering drums and swelling strings on the album opener, for example, Berninger later begrudgingly allowing Van Etten to blossom on the similar but better multi-layering of “The Pull Of You”. Quite unNational even in parts, choral harmonies later duel with spartan percussion and buzzing electronics. Yet, with so many strong personalities, it’s inevitable that I Am Easy To Find would be fought over like a bridal bouquet so it’s soothing then that tasteful, stately composition like “Quiet Light” and “Roman Holiday” still allow Berninger to rock you like a crib with his heavy hearted baritone.

Continuing to flow like the well-arranged suite it is, stabbing piano, a beating kick-drum and militaristic snares next liven “Oblivions” up no end, Berninger’s deep grumble met with Bryce Dessner’s wife’s beautifully quivering counterpoint. Featuring the heavenly Brooklyn Youth Chorus too, who reappear throughout, it’s undoubtedly a huge, classy, big-budget hit. Unable to maintain a head of steam though, what follows – the title track included – are decent but forgettable splashes of cymbals, scribbles of synth and slowly simmering cooing, the likes of which raise their head elsewhere too often also. Another tempo switch-up of speeding drums then injects some life back into the mix in the fun form of “Where Is Her Head?”, the very English-sounding Eve Owens even coaxing a perverse smile out of Berninger at this point.

Any notion of The National cutting loose and having a laugh though is quickly done away with back-to-back heavyweights “Not In Kansas” and “So Far So Fast”. At nearly 7 minutes apiece, melancholy minimalism is carried away on gravelly melodies, a blue-collar drift tackling alt-right malaise on the former, a hushed vocal taking Berninger by the hand and leading him off into an arty maze of effects on the latter. Contributing to a strong finish though, the piano-led “Light Years” takes its inspiration from Berninger’s mother-in-law’s cancer diagnosis and it respectfully tugs at the heartstrings so effectively as to almost guarantee you’ll be reaching for the Kleenex.

Moments before, and with much more vim and vigour comes “Rylan”, a session off-cut from the days of 2010’s High Violet and therefore unsurprisingly one of I Am Easy To Find’s best tracks, Berninger’s surging choruses flying from his lips like the bees in “Bloodbuzz Ohio”. “Don’t you wanna be popular culture?” his companion asks as the song progresses. And it’s an intriguing question to close out with. The National have sat on the fence for too long now, straddling cultish indie and stadium-sized rock and their identity is only blurred with their overuse of new voices. Having previously recorded “Hard To Find” on Trouble Will Find Me, it’s ironic but not unexpected to discover that in turn on I Am Easy To Find – a success only in small doses – The National are anything but.

Best tracks: “Oblivions”, “Rylan” and “Light Years”

~I Am Easy To Find is released May 17th 2019 via 4AD.~