|Album Review: The National— I Am Easy To Find|
I Am Easy To Find
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When I first stumbled upon indie rock band The National, I was in the throes of an emotionally charged cross-roads, passing on from my turbulent teens to the complex first stages of adulthood. They had just come out with their fifth album, High Violet, and it felt like every song was carefully written about me. In truth, though, their albums have long given voice to lead singer Matt Berninger's drifting thoughts, arduous memories, and buried insecurities. With his baritone melancholy and the band's meticulously arranged compositions, every song became a soundtrack to the fragile moments in my life. It has been an expansive journey, with each album growing along with the band— along with me. Nine years and countless budding grey hairs later, they release an unexpected eighth album, I Am Easy To Find, and for once, I don't feel like this album was written for me. It wasn't even written for them. It was written for every voice that has ever whispered in their ear, every word penned by a faceless collaborator, and every pat of encouragement that propelled them into the undulating spotlight. It is a celebration of life, and in turn—all those who have touched it.
To truly understand the album, it is imperative to understand its accompanying short film. Written and directed by Mike Mills, it is not the video for the album, just as the album is not the soundtrack for the film. As Mills describes, "[they are] playfully hostile siblings that love to steal from each other." After The National had finished their tour supporting their seventh album, Sleep Well Beast, Mills approached the band with the hope that they could form a collaboration on...something. Berninger, a fan of Mills', effectively handed over the creative keys, as the band set out to write and record again in lieu of a well-deserved break. The result is a 16-track album assembled like a film—a culmination of their signature sounds and more recent electronic experiments.
I used to think that The National's soul—its essence— lived in baritone confessions and wistful inner thoughts. But it lives in the sophisticated drumming, the carefully arranged piano keys, and yearning strings. All of these signature elements come to life in this cinematic album, in tracks like "Quiet Light" and "Where Is Her Head." Then, sprouting all across the album, are moments where the band sidesteps and gives a new voice the spotlight. The album's lead track "You Had Your Soul With You" boasts of all the familiar lovelorn notes. At the two-minute mark, the sweeping production falls back, a euphoric arrangement of strings swoops in, and an unfamiliar voice sidles up to the microphone. It's Gail Ann Dorsey (longtime David Bowie collaborator) cooing "I have ordered to my heart every word I've said | You have no idea how hard I died when you left".
This surprising cameo wouldn't be the only one on the album. It boasts of leading vocals from Lisa Hannigan, Eve Owen, Sharon Van Etten, Mina Tindle, Kate Stables of This Is the Kit, even the Brooklyn Youth Choir. While The National have long lurked in solitary, finding shelter in the meticulous perfection of the Dessner brothers, this transcends everything they have ever done. It features songs discarded from past albums, or teased in live performances ("Rylan"), but the motivation behind them is changed. Since the Mike Mills film is about a woman, Bryce Dessner astutely asked the question: "so shouldn’t there be women’s voices? We're a band that's been largely defined by the sound of one person's voice where suddenly now we're hearing others."
I Am Easy To Find isn't just another political statement on today's gender divisions, though. The band has long been supported by these women in various creative fashions. Berninger's wife, Carin Besser, has been a silent but vital part of the songwriting process long before this release. This album is a celebration of these collaborations, a chance to give other perspectives and identities a voice, in an effort to intertwine moments and life experiences into one moving piece. Tracks like "I Am Easy To Find" and "Hey Rosey" play like a movie with their breathing instrumental arrangements and complementing hushed vocals.
The pinnacle of the album, however, is found in its closing track "Light Years". A soaring piano ballad, it's a little identifying piece of The National that still lives on. Past album closers such as "Hard to Find" or "Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks" have found their place in the dusty corners of the heart- the ones that have been neglected or ignored. "Light Years", much like its predecessors, is a light that shines through to these forgotten corners, filling them with roaring emotions and a montage of memories. It's the sort of track that leaves you sobbing after, but you feel more complete for it.
I Am Easy To Find is an undefinable project. Its aspiration is to paint a life from birth to death in an hour, through painstakingly composed songs and empathetic lyrics. What it manages to achieve, though, is showcasing the band's growth. This album may have been a concept that was only introduced two years ago, but it plays like a memoir, with each song acting as a chapter dedicated to another faceless identity. For once, the spotlight doesn't shine on The National. The National shines a spotlight on all the stories that have made them into who they are today— and they even let someone else tell them.