Review Summary: 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. It sold like gangbusters; the band moved up to bigger and bigger stages; hell, they even won a Grammy. If you liked the National, chances are Sleep Well Beast
continued their hot streak for you (but! says the contrarian, with one finger raised: they peaked in 2005. Or 2007. Or…). If you didn’t care for them, the presence of Sleep Well Beast
on the top of so many end-of-year lists merely spoke to their status as a legacy indie band, the kind of band that will still draw in acclaim simply because it reminds those voting of their own stained youths, a recreation of old glories.
This new one, then, their eighth, should be no trouble, really – a band with nothing left to prove goes out on a limb, partnering with an indie film director (Mike Mills here, proving he learned a thing or two on the music video circuit) on an audio/collaboration that: (i) emphasizes the band’s peaking creative juices, or (ii) reeks of middle-aged hubris (pick one). When “You Had Your Soul With You” begins the record, the intros practically write themselves, a jittery guitar riff and zig-zagging strings painting just the sort of off-kilter hook the National have done a thousand times before. And then Gail Ann Dorsey’s voice envelops the melody like a sweater, and Berninger’s baritone – that National mascot, that swaying, drunken, slightly embarrassed symbol of everything the National represent – falls away into supporting harmony. Not the star, but another voice in a conversation. It’s an abrupt and unexpected turn, immediately striking for not only its beauty but for how well these disparate pieces suddenly snap into perfect alignment. The National, then, but something different from before. Something more exposed.
It suits Berninger, without a doubt. Berninger finds himself sharing the mic regularly throughout I Am Easy To Find
, engaged in dialogue with a worthy array of women, from Dorsey to Kate Stables Sharon Van Etten to Lisa Hannigan to the Brooklyn Youth Chorus to his own wife, writer Carin Besser. His decision to write lyrics in conjunction with Besser leads to some of the most revealing moments in his career. None is more stunning than “The Pull Of You,” where Berninger’s decades-long quest to decipher the cartography between people finds its thesis: “What was it you always said" We’re connected by a thread / If we’re ever far apart / I’ll still feel the pull of you.” It’s revelatory to experience Berninger in a different context, with voices that feel like an organic part of the band. Themes of memory, often wounded by time and events, are a constant: “I thought I saw your mother last weekend in the park / it coulda been anybody / it was after dark,” Berninger sings on “Light Years,” a song that concludes with one of the more crushing couplets in the National’s discography: “I would always be / light years away from you.” In hindsight, the album’s title is something of a cruel joke.
Far from a downer, however, I Am Easy To Find
crackles with energy. This army of collaborators and Mike Mills’ oddball editing habits seem to have revitalized the band’s willingness to stretch themselves far more than the curated, self-conscious shifts of Sleep Well Beast
. There’s the therapy session playing out between Berninger and Dorsey on top the sonorous thrum of “Hey Rosey”; the rushing anxiety of “Where Is Her Head,” where Eve Owen’s lilting reassurances offer a calming texture to the frantic drums and Berninger’s submerged recitations as they careen off together; how electronic sketches and painstakingly layered instrumental fog pile up into a haunting miasma on “So Far So Fast.” Even “Quiet Light” – certainly the most stereotypical “National” song here, not counting the well-worn High Violet
-era retread “Rylan” – manages to color its bleak, lonely portrait with something approaching acceptance, a lighter shade painted by Owen’s supporting vocals: “You’re nowhere near me, guess I don’t know what I’m saying … I’m always thinking you’re behind me / and I turn around and you’re always there.”
And then there’s “Not In Kansas,” a rambling snapshot of contemporary American politics that is as depressing in its matter-of-fact recitations as it is accurate. Berninger has never written lyrics so pointed, so bloodied by real life, and the way it sort of meanders off into the hymn-like cover of “Noble Experiment” by Dorsey, Hannigan, and Stables feels like a funeral for how things used to be. It highlights a problem with I Am Easy To Find
that I’m not sure the record fully solves: this is a collection of songs that often feels more like a scattered compendium of outtakes than a fully fleshed out statement. The interstitial tracks that dot the runtime seem like little more than window dressing, and as the album passes its halfway point it becomes progressively more of a melodic drag, often belaboring perspectives and sounds expressed better elsewhere. In a sense, it’s not hard to feel every minute of I Am Easy To Find’s
16 songs. Whether this was a conscious effort or a side effect of the rather haphazard way the record came together is difficult to tell, but it takes a little bit of the shine off what is the group’s most thrilling explorations in years. Your mileage may vary, based on whichever grouping you classified yourself in above.
The accompanying film features Alicia Vikander living an abbreviated version of life, from birth to death. Mills shoots it as snapshots of memory burning in and then fading away, a life of images sequenced and stacked one on top of the other, building a life that is over soon after it begins. It’s short and hushed, but grand; cinematic, but crushingly intimate in its universality. In this, it’s the ideal match for an album that touches on these themes in a similar manner, the same themes the National have been excavating, turning over, and marveling at their entire career. It’s a handy metaphor for I Am Easy To Find
itself, too, a record imbued with the distance between people and places, the impermanence of stories and emotions, and one that finds it ever so hard to stay in one place for too long. “I know I can get attached and then unattached / to my own versions of others / my view of you comes back and drops away,” goes the chorus to “The Pull Of You.” It’s a line that exemplifies a record of hairpin turns, detours and loose ends, of memories in your grasp and then slipping away. It’s a damn fine National album.