Albums by The National tend to be instantly recognisable because the vast majority of their work has tended to occupy such an idiosyncratic space in history’s musical landscape. Whether it’s frontman Matt Berninger’s inescapable and inimitable portrayal of the creeping dread that accompanies being a father, husband, man, and human being that grabs the attention most easily, or the sometimes-delicate-sometimes-gut-punching manner in which the band can conjure emotion out of thin air, a National album is more often than not a wildly distinctive affair.
That’s why the revelation that the band’s upcoming eighth record was going to be a collaborative effort felt like such a bolt from the blue: because, as well as recognisability and adoration, uniqueness has always lent the band’s albums the feeling of being private and personal. As Berninger reminds us, ‘The National is not five dudes’ – Sufjan Stevens and Berninger’s wife Carin Besser, among others, have always been in and around the creative process, meaning that The National has always been more of a collective than their music might have suggested. But even so, we’ve never seen a National album widen its collaborative scope so openly, nor to this extent.
As a result I Am Easy To Find, at least at first glance, feels more disjointed than the band’s other efforts; it doesn’t have the unrelenting, chromatic anxiety of Trouble Will Find Me or the tightly wound, cerebral self-doubt of High Violet, and this is all down to the album’s primary creative producer Mike Mills, who has also directed the short film of the same name. Instead of an immaculate still life, Mills has put together a skilfully woven tapestry.
This is an album not about one distinct aspect of a human existence, but rather an album simply about being human. In one moment, long-time Bowie bandmate Gail Ann Dorsey’s world-weariness and experience lends the pensive ‘Roman Holiday’ a sense of antiquity – a feeling that you’ve known the tune she’s singing for years, while in another, Eve Owen’s turn on the standout ‘Where Is Her Head’ is as brittle, bright and youthful as it would be in a lullaby. As instanced by the part autobiographical, part topical folk-tinted nostalgia trip that is ‘Not In Kansas’, I Am Easy To Find finds Berninger conducting an exercise in letting go, in relinquishing ownership of the sentiments he’s trying to express. Everything he wants to say is still here, but, at the risk of alienating some, it’s like he’s saying it in someone else’s voice; like he’s looking at the world through someone else’s glasses.
That’s not to say the classic Berninger sentiment has been lost: the eponymous ‘I Am Easy To Find’ plays like a, tender, introspective ode to resigning oneself to things that can’t be changed. Meanwhile, long-time fan favourite ‘Rylan’ makes its studio debut in stunning fashion; Berninger and Kate Stables’ melancholic lyrics, layered over resonant piano chords and Bryan Davendorf’s taut drum line completely bypass the barrier to emotion that is rational thought – a feat only The National can manage.
Such is the scope of I Am Easy To Find that it’s hard to find time to mention the anxious, rambling, stream of consciousness that is ‘Oblivions’, the longing, worrisome ‘So Far So Fast’ and its lament of a lost identity, or the two wordless interludes that break new sonic ground for the band. I Am Easy To Find is a sprawling, contemplative album that sees The National turning their eyes outward for the first time. While its loss of introversion might distance it from some, its scope and its bravery make it the band’s biggest step forward yet, and one which has to be – if not universally loved, then unequivocally admired.
Words by Ben Kitto