Album Review: The National - I Am Easy to Find
Up until recently, I never really considered if a song could exist without its accompanying music video. The era of the ‘music video’ in the traditional sense—seen on MTV, or whatever, is long gone. Videos, or ‘visuals,’ as they are commonly referred to now, are still filmed, often with lavish production values, and are simply released online for consumption in an effort to promote a product.
A song should be able to survive without a video—it should be able to stand on its own, or make sense without the visual component.
Last year, Donald Glover released the single “This is America” under his Childish Gambino moniker. Critics had, up until recent years, not exactly taken the project seriously, though he was steadily growing a fan base with it—even with a few cringe worthy moments, his late 2013 effort, Because The Internet was a complicated, intelligent record that blurred the lines between R&B, rap, and pop music.
Glover, a comedic actor by day, started is journey toward becoming a temporary critical darling, with the double shot of his well received FX series “Atlanta,” a surreal dark comedy about an underground rapper living in the titular city, as well as “Awaken, My Love!,” the scuzzy funk and unhinged soul record he released a the tail end of 2016.
In 2018, after Glover alleged he was planning on ‘retiring’ the Childish Gambino moniker at some point in the near future, he released “This is America.” A skittering-trap influenced pop song, there is inherently nothing special about it. It’s mildly infectious, sure, but that’s because of how repetitive it is. The key to the song—or at least what made it so popular, was its video—a stark, violent, dizzying video filmed to look like a seamless take as Glover dances his way through a warehouse, shooting various people, and jumping on top of cars.
The video is impressive for a number of reasons—a heavy handed, bold statement on race relations, sure, but the cinematography and precision with which everything unfolds is astounding. The song just happens to be what this video is staged to; the song itself is not the kind of thing that packs the same emotional weight when listened to on its own.
But this isn’t about Donald Glover.
This is about if a song, or a collection of songs, can exist—can stand alone—without their accompanying music videos.
The writing on Consequence of Sound is notoriously bad—and the site itself, at times, seems like Stephen King owns it with how much they dedicate to adaptations of his work. But, like all horrible music news and review websites (Pitchfork and Stereogum included) I check it at least once a day to see what score they’ve given a recent release, or to see if there is any non-Stephen King related headlines I should read.
A Consequence of Sound staffer recently wrote some kind of self-aware and genre-deprecating thinkpiece about how Vampire Weekend ‘won’ the indie rock age because they, among other reasons, have become incredibly successful and outlasted a lot of their peers as far as relevancy and quality.
If you can cut through the shit-eating grin that the piece was written with, there are some points about the eventual diminishing returns of mid-to-late 2000s indie acts that I do agree with; however, I would argue that another band that hit their stride around the same time that a number of other acts that are synonymous with ‘indie rock’ came up, maybe didn’t ‘win’ this era because how do you win at a genre of music—but that they were able to transcend it, and grow in unexpected, compelling ways.
But this isn’t about a smirking thinkpiece on a low tier media website.
This is about The National.
The compelling back story of The National has been told countless times before—all friends from Ohio, the band reconnect in Brooklyn, New York prior to the dot com bubble burst in the early 2000. It took them, as a band, awhile to ease into both themselves and their sound—their first album, 18 years old now, is primarily acoustic and incredibly ramshackle. The band’s unpredictable and unhinged frontman, Matt Berninger, had yet to find his voice—but there are gorgeous moments where you can tell there was potential.
The potential started to take shape in 2003, with their sophomore album Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers—still ramshackle, but exponentially more focused, as well as the stopgap EP, Cherry Tree, released the following year.
The turning point came with their visceral and claustrophobic third album, Alligator, specifically the 2006 reissue of Alligator (containing an extra disc of b-sides.) Popular in parts of Europe and in various regions throughout the US, by the following year, when the nervy, tense Boxer was released, the band had no clue how big they had gotten to be; by 2009, with the release of what was, at the time, their most ambitious and densely layer album, High Violet, the band was more or less a household name.
Critics, at times, have chided the band’s trajectory over the last six years—the thinkpiece on Consequence of Sound compares them to Bruce Springsteen; and the Pitchfork review of their new album, I Am Easy to Find, states that a fatal flaw of a bulk of their canon is that it can be considered ‘boring.’
I’m not sure what people really want from ‘indie rock.’ It’s a genre that eats its own, in every sense of the expression—every band has to build such an overwhelming buzz for themselves right out of the gate that, by the time you are on the second or third album, people have lost interest—the buzz is gone and ears have drifted onto someone else being touted as the next big thing.
Slow burning and brooding is what The National—at least for the last nine years—do best. They aren’t the same band that compacted the nervous energy and fear that came from being involved with a well respected, larger independent label into the cathartic howls of “Mr. November.” The band has continued to grow and mature—the brothers Dessner have become more elaborate and intelligent in their arranging; Berninger—it took him awhile, yes, but he’s become more confident in his voice, allowing himself a dynamic he did not have in the past.
Four years elapsed between the band’s fifth album Trouble Will Find Me, and it’s ambitious follow up, Sleep Well Beast. Trouble found the band at a real turning point in their sound, perhaps uncertain where to go next; Sleep Well Beast found the band embracing synthesizers and drum machines, something they had never really experimented whole heartedly with before. At times it seemed awkward or a little shoehorned together, but other times, the results were startling and thought provoking.
There are a lot of things that the new album from The National—I Am Easy to Find—their eighth long playing release, is, and also, is not.
It is, after all, a new album from The National—my second favorite band, second only to Radiohead—so all of the band’s trademarks are present and accounted for including the razor sharp precision of drumming of Bryan Devandorf, and Berninger’s penchant for evocative, at times ambiguous lyrics.
It is, more or less, a ‘sonic continuation’ of Sleep Well Beast—the synthesizers and drum machines can’t just be packed away so easily. Arriving less than two years later, the band is exhibiting a little more assurance when working in these additional layers. It can still be a little off putting at times, and there are moments when it still doesn’t exactly work, but the incorporation has grown by leaps and bounds when compared to the, at times, cumbersome soundscapes of this album’s predecessor.
It is their longest album to date, both in running time and in the amount of tracks included—sprawling well over an hour, and packed with 16 songs, though that is a little misleading, because two of them around a minute long and serve as minor interludes.
It is, as you’d expect from The National, full of moments that devastate; whether it be an entire song or one simple line that hits too close to home, it is another emotionally draining experience from the band.
It is not a soundtrack to the 26-minute short film from director Mike Mills, who also serves as the co-producer of this record. His film, coincidentally, is also titled I Am Easy to Find.
The film, in turn, is not a music video for this album.
The two projects are companions—inspired by one another but meant to co-exist in a way where one does not necessarily need the other; however there is still a connection that the two entities share that is difficult to break completely.
There was, apparently, another album’s worth of material the band was eager to do something with even before the release of Sleep Well Beast—and a song like “Rylan,” for example, dates back to the band’s live set prior to 2013, appearing here in a studio recording for the first time.
There can be speculation that these songs, or at least some of these songs, would have turned up eventually in an album that wasn’t I Am Easy to Find—but this is how they’ve taken shape: a statement that is not always immediate as other albums by The National, though no less profound to hear, on an album that is, for the most part, able to function outside of the short film it shares a name (and a lot more) with, though going into the album, it helps to have watched I Am Easy to Find at least once—having that information lets some of the material make a little more sense contextually, and there are moments from both the film and album that mirror each other in surprising, impressive ways.
This album is, and much has been made of this, not the first time the band has worked with female voices—dating back to the one-off single “Thing You Can Wait,” featuring Sharon Van Etten (who also is a featured artist on I Am Easy to Find), The National have used additional vocal contributions in an auxiliary way prior to this—meaning the guest artist, whoever it was, was providing back up vocals, or additional vocal layering, woven into the fabric of the song.
But I Am Easy to Find is the first time that the band has worked so collaboratively with additional vocal performers—at times, Berninger takes a back seat, or is even pushed out completely, by these presences. It can be surprising at times—a bit of a shock to the system, if you will, if you’ve followed the band as closely as I have over the last 13 or 14 years; but, with that being said, it’s also refreshing.
In an interview about the creative process between the film and the album as both independent projects as well as the spaces where they connect, Berninger says he watched an early rough cut of the film and was not sure that things worked the way they should as he saw his on voice matched up to the images on the screen—particularly of the film’s nameless protagonist, portrayed by actor Alicia Vikander.
Among those featured on I Am Easy to Find, along with Van Etten, are Lisa Hannigan, Kate Stables from the band This is The Kit, and David Bowie’s former bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, who provides what is probably the most memorable, haunting contributions to the record—her voice is the most soulful, ringing out in a juxtaposition of strength and fragility on “You Had Your Soul With You,” and what is the album’s finest moment, “Hairpin Turns.”
I Am Easy to Find opens with the song that is probably the most similar, in sound and arranging, from the pieces on Sleep Well Beast—“You Had Your Soul With You,” also the album’s first single, release two months in advance of the album, begins with jittery blasts of feedback that skitter back and forth, before the rest of the instrumentation, including a steady sharp rhythm created by Devandorf and flourishes of both brass and strings.
Probably the most frenetic in its energy—“You Had Your Soul With You” is not a bait and switch with the tone from the rest of the album, but the band rarely tries to match this kind of level of vigor throughout the rest of the album, save for the thrilling, pounding pulse of “Rylan,” and the cacophonic “Where Is Her Head.” It’s the most directly infectious—you can hear right from the beginning why it was chose as the single; however, it’s not one of the album’s strongest songs, emotionally speaking—but there is one moment that hits, and it hits hard, when Gail Ann Dorsey arrives near the end of the song in a short bridge section and delivers this line that I have been unable shake: “You have no idea how hard I died when you left.”
Previous National albums have been all about maintaining a specific mood—famously, Alligator was all release and little tension; Boxer, in turn was all tension and little release. I Am Easy to Find see the band creating a structure that is about varying levels of drama—“Quiet Light” is a little less overtly moody, and even a little jaunty, when compared to the downcast and sparse “Roman Holiday,” or the theatrical, gorgeous swooning of “Oblivions.” An album this dense is not exactly a great starting point for someone who has never heard of The National before, but this four song run provides great, and at times very effecting, examples of their range in the band’s songwriting at this point in their career.
Not everything works on I Am Easy to Find—and this may be, in part, because of its close connection to the short film of the same name. There is this give and take of specific lines that are both used in the film—always as title cards (the film itself has barely any actual dialogue)—as well as worked into a song’s lyrics. “Dust Swirls in Strange Light,” for example, is a track that doesn’t feature Berninger at all, and is mostly instrumental, save for a choir singing, “Her mother’s voice, her father’s heartbeat, the orange color inside her eyelids, the sun light on her skin, dust swirls in strange light…” These are all key elements within the film, or ideas that are returned upon throughout the piece—taken out of the context of the film, and placed within the album as just an album, it feels out of place.
Elsewhere, the band experiments with spoken word breaks within two songs—“The Pull of You,” and “Not in Kansas,” which is the most self-aware on the album. This isn’t the first time The National have attempted this—a very glitchy, electronic track from Sleep Well Beast, “Walk it Back,” included a bizarre sample of dialogue, as well as Berninger talking more than singing, which is, truthfully, what he did a lot of in the band’s early days before he was a more confident vocalist.
“The Pull of You” is what the band would tend to label a ‘rock’ song—heavy on guitars, it has a skittering rhythm that finds Berninger shouting in a higher range over the top of the frenzy, with spoken word breaks from both himself and Sharon Van Etten, as well as additional vocals from Damien Rice’s former collaborator, Lisa Hannigan, who had previously worked Aaron Dessner on her 2016 solo album.
“Not in Kansas” is written in a stream of conscious style, with Berninger rattling off lines about listening to R.E.M. again or watching films with Annette Benning, or about ‘alt-right opium going viral.’ It is also the most plodding song on the album, and possibly the weakest of the whole set, slowing things down to a molasses up a hill pace—the long breaks where Berninger’s vocals disappear and are replaced by choral singing also don’t help with the song’s lack of momentum.
The album’s finest moments arrive in its final fourth—“Rylan” is the album’s last burst of bombastic energy, appearing in what is obviously a updated form given that Kate Stables takes the second verse, but the mere inclusion of it, buried within a record weighed down with a heavy concept attached, is both a gamble that pays off, as well as being a slight wink to longtime fans who were probably wondering what happened to the song after it fell off the band’s live set so many years ago.
It’s easy to call The National ‘dad rock,’ mostly because many members of the band, themselves, have children now—or simply because people who latched onto the band in their early days are also now possibly fathers. I don’t think of them as ‘dad rock,’ though—I save a descriptor like that for something boring like Wilco. If someone asks me about The National, I usually describe them as ‘sad white people music,’ and the band saves their saddest songs for their whitest listeners for last.
While the marrying of the band’s original gloomy, theatrical, and organic sound alongside their newfound interest in glitchy, warm electronic supplementation doesn’t always land perfectly 100% of the time, there are moments where they are able to find that balance between sounds—“Hairpin Turns,” the album’s third single, and the finest moment on the record, is one of those times.
Slow burning, brooding, and shattering in that trademark ‘The National’ kind of way, the song simmers along thanks to the intertwining of a chintzy drum machine beat with Devandorf’s surprisingly restrained though always precise live percussion, a low rumbling synthesizer serving as the bass, and a gorgeous, somber piano arrangement that arrives during a heartbreaking refrain.
The thing that has kept me a National fan since hearing Alligator for the first time in 2006 has been Berninger’s lyrics—they’ve gotten far less ambiguous and fragmented as he’s matured into the role of a songwriter—Trouble Will Find Me is the place where they became much more direct. With that direct approach to his lyrics, the songs are now, many times, incredibly personal and stark in their honesty.
Sometimes you see a lot of yourself in National songs—and that is usually not all that good of a thing.
“I liked the old way I thought I was hanging in there,” Berninger begins, with a line that I knew was going to hit entirely too close to home. “You held back the worst rain from my shoulders then.” Then the refrain comes, welcoming back the robust voice of Gail Ann Dorsey as she sings along with Berninger—“What are we going through—you and me? Every other house on the street’s burning. What are we going through? Wait and see—days of brutalism and hairpin turns.”
“Hairpin Turns” is, also, one of the numerous occasions where either the lyrics mirror things mentioned in the film, or the film mirrors lyrics—the expression “We’re always arguing about the same things,” used in this song in a later refrain, is echoed twice in difference scenes.
The album concludes with “Light Years,” which is sparse and fragile enough that it almost works as an epilogue or an afterward to everything that has come before it—lacking any kind of percussion, it’s structured around a pensive progression on the piano with a lush layer of strings swirling around Berninger’s haunting and self-deprecating lyrics.
Eight albums in, and officially 20 years since they formed in 1999, The National are not a band that has to push themselves, or reinvent themselves, every time they record an album. I Am Easy to Find is not a reinvention for the band, but does find them continuing to challenge themselves, and therefore, challenging their audience.
Berninger’s lyrics will more than likely never be as shadowy and disjointed as they were when he was writing Boxer, but as a songwriter, still finds ways to surprise—the amount of religious imagery alone on this album came as quite a shock, as well as the relatively natural give and take written into the way the lyrics are delivered when sharing vocal duties with one of the album’s myriad guest performers.
In turn, the rest of the band have grown along with him—brothers Bryan and Scott Devandorf are comfortable with the band crafting for songs that don’t feature live percussion or bass guitar, respectively—sometimes the only percussion you hear comes from a drum machine; sometimes there’s no percussion at all; sometimes, like in the video for “Hairpin Turns,” you find Scott Devandorf sitting cross-legged, pressing his fingers down onto a very small synthesizer to assist with the song’s rhythm. The Dessner twins, Aaron and Bryce, have also come a long way—once easily described as the two guitarists flanking Berninger at the front of the stage, they are both more confident and capable as composers and arrangers for the band’s ever expanding, never uncomplicated sound.
I Am Easy to Find is not a perfect album—I never alluded to it being one, and I never said that any National album is, though High Violet comes pretty close. For as beloved as Boxer is, my wife and I, on a long car trip, after listening to a few episodes of the Boxer-based podcast “Coffee and Flowers,” determined that there are a number of songs that neither of us have ever really liked, or just don’t really work within the place where they’ve been sequenced.
While the weight of the short film that parallels this album is hard for the music, on its own, to shake off completely, somewhere within this sprawling set of songs, with just a handful of omissions, is a slightly leaner, still incredibly intricate, and always thought provoking National record that would more than likely manage to maintain a slow, but captivating pace. Left unedited, and still tethered, even by a faint thread, to the film of the same name, it is still intricate and thought provoking—all while walking the line between being a bold, surprising statement that manages to be, at times, frustrating.
I Am Easy to Find is out now as a 2xLP, CD, and special 3xLP featuring the 'score' to the I Am Easy to Find film; all via 4AD.
I Am Easy to Find is out now as a 2xLP, CD, and special 3xLP featuring the 'score' to the I Am Easy to Find film; all via 4AD.