The National (photo by Graham Macindoe, PR)
I Am Easy to Find
As a band, the National has a recognizable voice — not just the singularly distinctive baritone of lead singer Matt Berninger, but a soundprint that's discernible in the first seconds of a song, whether those seconds happen to contain a drumbeat (from Bryan Devendorf) or guitar riff (courtesy of Bryce or Aaron Dessner).
That collective voice, over the course of 10 years, has ranged from dark to really dark, from whisper-strain quiet to a growling scream, and it has lushly embodied a range of emotions. It has always, though, been heavily male.
With the dawn of I Am Easy to Find, that band's latest album, spring has arrived outside the cave of men, and sunlight has birthed a garden of women’s voices in the kingdom of National-land. The mighty and graceful oak that is Gail Ann Dorsey is the first one to appear, on the opening track “You Had Your Soul With You." It's a quiet harmonic echo in the shadows which bursts into its own verse, ending up in perfectly even balance with Berninger's vocal. It’s an announcement: this time everything is different.
In fact it was another man, L.A. film director Mike Mills, who planted those feminine seeds with the National. Mills' work is often centered on women, and he came to the band with a concept that turned into a multimedia project, with Mills as a creative director in the album production as well. The other participants, besides Dorsey, include Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten, This is the Kit's Kate Stables, Mina Tindle, and Eve Owen.
I Am Easy to Find is intertwined with a film of the same name, a lovely 24-minute devotion to the life of one anonymous woman from birth to death, played gracefully by Oscar-winning Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. (Put it on your biggest screen or watch it below.) The two projects can stand alone, but as they fed each other along the way in their creation, they add dimension to each other.
For longtime National fans, it’s as if we've been listening to half of a couple’s conversation for all these years, and the wife has finally wandered within earshot. In fact that is true, in a way; Carin Besser, Berninger’s wife and longtime writing partner, saw her role as a lyricist expanded here.
The film and the album share a sensibility, a rhythmic structure. The film is a composite of short scenes, each one a distinct moment in the woman’s life. Some moments merit short clips, some moments are simple graphic text on a screen of primary color. Most of the songs on I Am Easy to Find are each a moment, too, like a snapshot; a thought or feeling pulled out of a conversation, an argument, or a too-long night spent with one’s own thoughts.
The work is subtle and artful. The most typical-sounding National song, “Quiet Light,” sets the male character in a one-way conversation with a departed lover. The only other vocals are like a quiet echo ringing in his head: “Between you and me, I still fall apart at the thought of your voice.” The poetry throughout the album is incredibly intimate, as ever, but now there are two distinct characters sharing their pain. Listeners shouldn't spend too much time picturing one particular couple; much like the film, the couple is everyone, and the moments are everyone’s moments.
The art-rock pendulum swings back and forth from song to song, as the National messes with norms and song structure. “The Pull of You” breaks into abstract conversation from Berninger as Hannigan laments, “What was is it you always said? We're connected by a thread. If we ever get far apart, I'll still feel the pull of you."
Particularly cinematic vocals come courtesy of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, as in “Where is Her Head,” with lyrics written by Mills for the film. From sweet, young voices come a repeated cycle of questions: “Is she outside? Is she looking out? Is she standing up? Where are her hands? Where are her eyes? Where is her head?" With contrasting drama, amid swirling, cacophonous guitarwork from the Dessners, the male of the dialogue bursts with the tension of an obsessive lover’s mental gymnastics: "I think I'm hitting a wall, I hate loving you as much as I do."
There are too many good songs to talk about on I Am Easy to Find since, at 16 songs, it’s the National’s longest release — but another standout is "Hairpin Turns." It sets a personal moment in the greater world of political extremes, of wildfires and earthquakes, “days of brutalism and hairpin turns,” while Berninger and Dorsey sing in perfect unison, clear and soft: "We're always arguing about the same things." They use a similar style on “Hey Rosey,” the yin and yang so close that with every breath, they could be — maybe are? — within the same person.
The identity-questioning epic “Not in Kansas” places the end of the world as we know it — home, family, church — into a mix of choir, lullaby guitar and R.E.M. references. “Light Years” closes out I Am Easy to Find, built on a skeleton of beautiful piano melody from Bryce Dessner and soaring guitar like wailing whalesong from Aaron. (And the video is a short version of the film.)
It’s worth adding a note about how these songs work in live performance. As with all of the National's material, the stakes get high. The drum and bass hit you at your core, live horns amp up the tension, live strings heighten the drama, and Berninger’s acrobatic modes of expression bring both anguish and humorous relief.
Only time will tell if this well-crafted and ambitious project will stand alone as an opportunity to make the most of a smart collaboration, or change the core workings of a talented and creative band of artists.