Review Summary: There are police in the museum.
There has always been something comfortable about watching The National evolve because the more the band evolves, the more they stay the same. They have been largely viewed as the most dependable band in indie rock for a reason, they’re the proverbial one trick pony that is so damn good at the trick, you could watch it forever. Are you glum that you now have no way to communicate with your ex - Did your middle age crisis hit you in your twenties - There’s eight National records for that. Matt Berninger seems to have found the dream job, largely consisting of him stumbling around high and drunk on stage, and occasionally losing his shit as he buries himself in the crowd, but his easy, poetic, deprecatory confession have always been the focal point for the band, twirling off concise half hooks transformed into full musical statements by his rich baritone and skilled band - with one hell of a drummer - wrapped snugly around them. Increasingly more and more, Matt only has one subject to sing about, that of an ideal, elegant relationship and its disturbance by a intruding force outside of the two subject’s control. Matt, drunk and high in the Louvre or someplace just as fancy and serene as the authorities break through the door – well, when guest-vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey cries “there are police in the museum” at the climax of Roman Holiday, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a pronouncement more appropriate to a band, or a more symbolic description of the fictional relationship Matt can’t escape.
I am Easy to Find is the most memorable National record in a long time for the simple fact that it’s the band’s most ambitious effort to buck their identity to date. It’s an utter failure, of course. Matt described the record as some ode to womanhood, the accompanying film strikingly a depiction of a woman’s life crafted by six white men, but really the album is about Matt struggling through estranged relationship, like every single other record. Neither does the music itself establish all the much of a gap compared to what came before it. That probably can’t be ignored but there are corners of the band’s well-tread territory that the band has never reached for before and the most laudatory element of this record is just how fully and effortlessly the band explores them by trying to break out of that territory. It probably can’t be stressed enough how collaborative of an effort this record was, a film-maker, no less, crafting almost every song with equal footing to the band. A film-maker who sought the The National out, not the other way around. It’s the happiest accident to happen to the The National in a long time.
This is, at least in my eyes, the freshest National record since Alligator, 13 years ago, and I’ve been having a little trouble putting my finger onto why that is. But, I think it’s the sense of direction this record has. No matter how well-crafted or how accomplished, every National record has felt like a series of 10-14 songs largely just slapped together into a series of songs, connected by loose auditory strands. There’s an outside hand here lending this record a little bit of thematic continuity and it’s welcome.
The most obvious, and perhaps superficial, contrast one can make towards this end, compared to the rest of the band’s works, is a host of female singers who take turns taking the vocal lead in nearly every track. It’s a natural progression for the band. It’s only fitting that the other person in the relationship would eventually materialize, and it’s a compliment to them how much the change doesn’t at all disturb their sound. Rather, it brightens the record, giving the National’s song more liveliness and color. National records can sometimes fall into a dourness when Matt’s wit gives way, it has no chance of happening here. Matt, of course, can’t help but be the gravity that keeps everything rooted, his voice still the most distinct and emblematic, his effortless talent still carries the record, despite the competition.
But really, it’s every element of The National’s well-realized sound that finds itself purposely under attack in this album. I Am Easy to Find’s primary task is to pull the loose threads the band has, deconstruct the sound and put it all back together again. The records goes off an auditory cliff when it hits Not in Kansas, an absurdist free-form musical rant by Matt tied together by simple guitar progression and an out of nowhere choral arrangement of Noble Experiment, a song you probably forget about, if you’ve heard it at all. It’s bonkers, especially for The National, but it’s so expertly crafted, it’s a welcomed left turn. Following that is So Far, So Fast and Dust Swirls in a Strange Light, a ten minute segment defined both more choral arraignments, extended art-rock jam sessions and a noticeable, ten-minute absence of Matt, only showing up for a minute in So Far So Fast to usher in its climax. The tightly wound Matt-centric pop confessionals the band has made their home in have been completely ransacked. And then they are put back together. Hairpin Turns starts off atonal before bursting into a staple National chorus, and then the throwback Rylan brings the listener completely back into that territory that is so well-tread.
Publications have criticized Rylan for being a Trouble Will Find Me throwback or outtake, depending on their level of dislike for the song, but really, the song is a move by a band that is mature enough to recognize how well the foundations of their sound and the nostalgia that comes with it can form into a climax, strengthened by all the exploring the band has done in the 54 minutes before it.
It’s easy to lose sight, in all this spectacle, that the songwriting is perhaps a little thinner here than in the band’s prime. The production is magnificent, the strings sound huge, the guest vocalists make everything pop, but take them a way and there’s quite a few songs, especially in this record’s front half, that just wouldn’t work without them. You Had Your Soul With You is the most representative of this. It’s by all means a failed experiment, the melody struggling to hold onto something, the frantic glitched out guitars doing it little favors. And then the orchestra and Gail Ann Dorsey descend onto the track at the bridge and suddenly everything works magnificently. It’s a build up to a moment the band can’t pull off alone, a moment of brilliance that isn’t due to songwriting but collaboration. Similar dynamics can be said for Roman Holiday, Oblivions and Hairpin Turns. It’s hard to knock the band for this, because in the final product, nothing here turns out to be a misstep, but excellence by slight of hand is not a trick the band has had to pull off before – it’s notable here.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments here that reach highest peaks of the band's songwriting as well. Quiet Light is earlier hit Don’t Swallow The Cap perfected, just as catchy, but twice as elegant and morose. Pull of You takes all the ambition of the record and boils it down into a quintessential National track, easily pulling off four distinct movements in its four minutes. Where is Her Head may be right out of Arcade Fire’s Funeral but it’s the most infectious number The National have penned in a long time – essentially a four minute chorus, nothing but hook after hook after hook. Rylan has been a fan-staple for a reason, an earworm that will only tread deeper into your head as you give it time. Light Years is a devastating ballad, so simple Matt has problem written 100 songs just like it which are sitting in a garbage bin. But he picked this one and that’s enough to make it special, it’s poignant simplicity makes it a profound closer for a sprawling record such as this one.
The choirs, the strings, the guest singers, the almost prog-like instrumental breaks, if these are the police in the museum, the police have been in there the whole time. Mills hasn’t really added anything new to The National’s sound, he’s just unearthed elements that were buried by its usual simplicity, and those elements create a world more intriguing and more full than anything the band has created since they first formed their world-conquering formula in Alligator. The National may not be able to escape themselves but there’s a truth exposed here that we’ve known for a very long time, they don't have to. This record is still the band coloring inside the lines, but there’s no white spaces anymore. It may not be the band’s best record, but it’s their most fully realized. An ode to ambition and a willingness to change from the one of the most stationary elements in the modern indie scene, I Am Easy To Find deserves to be one of The National's most respected accomplishments.