Review Summary: "how far is a light year?"
When you get right down to it, every song The National have ever written is about distance. Distance, the lack of it, and the ways people are transformed by those extremes.
This has never been more plain than on I Am Easy to Find
, an album which otherwise steadfastly refuses to make things simple or easy. When the album title was announced I made the connection to Trouble Will Find Me
's lonely, haunting closing track like everybody else. I also found myself oddly moved by the five words, even untethered as they were to any music or idea I had yet heard. Those words felt - still kinda feel - like a refutation or a refusal to give in to "Hard to Find"'s ennui and sadness; and implicitly, a refutation of the entire image we've come to associate with The National, the broken-hearted red wine-chugging middle-aged bastions of quiet existential collapse. Hearing I Am Easy to Find
's title track, though, I'm just not so sure: the five words sound just as desperate as their opposites did, especially prefaced with the biting "I'm not going anywhere, who do I think I'm kidding？" just before. As ever with this band, there's no easy triumph or cheesy 'hurrah' moment. As always, they exist in the liminal space between celebration and desperation.
And yet. It's about distance, and the lack of it. As one half of the album draws to a close, Berninger repeats "I am easy to find" - a complex declaration in this context, yes, but one that still ultimately carries a ring of reassurance, steadfastness, trust. On the other pole, over a gorgeous piano refrain that could loop on forever, Berninger "would always be light years, light years from you". How did he get so far so fast？
"It was that exposed feeling of when someone’s gone so deep and seen your innermost thoughts." That's what Alicia Vikander said about the script for 'I Am Easy to Find', then just a row of about 150 sentences that would go on to make up a 25-minute film. But those lines stem from The National's minds as much as the likes of "Where Is Her Head" (which sounds like if Arcade Fire were good) and "Dust Swirls in Strange Light" (which sounds like Bryan Devendorf stole a choir sample from Thom Yorke's Suspiria
to flex some drums over) stem from Mills'. "The film is a portrait of a life, and the album is a portrait of an afterlife", as Berninger says. I don't hear much of that in the album itself, just a different approach to the chronicling of an existence. Where the short film shackles itself to linearity, relying on Vikander to fashion an arc out of the snapshots and subtitles, The National dive into the complicated mess of memory and come out with jumbled pieces: hard conversations, cheap shots, gut-dropping existential moments and Annette Bening binges which somehow amount to a life lived.
Basically, every time The National reinvent themselves I'm waiting for something to go wrong. They've edged up to it with albums this decade I haven't loved, and that throwaway EL VY thing, but always stayed on the right side of their reliably great songwriting. I Am Easy to Find
takes that landmark off the map; it plunges The National into the waters of full art-rock auteurs, complete with accompanying movie and a lack of easy choruses or crescendos to fall back on. (Hilariously, "The Pull of You" explodes into the most fan-favourite National chorus in years, complete with Berninger almost ripping his vocal cords apart Alligator
-style – then takes a hard left into spoken word and never revisits the hook). It's not virgin territory, with echoes of "Walk It Back"'s minimalism and bucking of the crescendo formula echoed in the likes of "So Far So Fast" - both featuring Lisa Hannigan prominently, not likely a coincidence. The decentralising of anchors Matt Berninger and Bryan Devendorf, which began on Sleep Well Beast
, is here in full flourish, their spotlight positions instead filled by the stunning arrangements and featured singers. There are classic National singles here too, in the form of "Hairpin Turns" and the band-defining "Rylan", but they're buried at the back end of several interludes, a ten-minute stretch with barely any Berninger and a seven-minute ramble that might satiate your curiosity if you've ever wondered what Berninger guesting on Common as Light and Love...
would have sounded like. If you're on the conservative side of things then make no mistake - The National have reinvented themselves, and some things have gone utterly, delightfully wrong.
The band themselves might be sometimes unrecognisable, transformed by their ambitions or smothered by their pretensions, depending on your point of view. But the centre of gravity around which they've always spun, the human heart of Berninger's lyrics that was always caked under middle-class anxiety and "quote-unquote upscale tropical funeral" surrealism, has never been easier to find. This tension between open-heartedness and discursive, tangential songwriting – let's call it the distance
between simplicity and complexity, for closure's sake – is the paradox on which this album is built, and to that brilliant balancing act you can always return when it feels like it's losing the thread. Yes, there's a gulf between "I Am Easy to Find" and "Light Years", one that feels potentially irreconcilable, but common DNA still tethers them together. Aaron Dessner's piano, always as incredible as that instrument has ever been in indie rock; themes of closeness and separation, of people right beside each other with no common ground (as when Berninger sings "you were never a New Yorker, it wasn't in your eyes" like it's the saddest lyric of all time); most touchingly, in two moments utterly lacking in snarky wit or flashy poeticism, just a simple promise that "if you ever come around this way again / you'll see me standing in the sunlight in the middle of the street". Mills knows a winner when he hears it, because this image forms the backbone of a crucial short film moment; more importantly, Matt and Carin full-circle the album around that promise, with the conclusion "you were waiting outside for me in the sun" on "Light Years". Call it an arc fashioned out of repurposed old songs and leftovers if you like, but I can't think of a better way to kiss off into the air.