Each National album is an invitation into Matt Berninger’s world. It is an impressionistic and existentialist one, populated by characters with offbeat names like ‘Abel,’ full of doubts, vices, and a menagerie of individual heartbreaks. The band has managed just fine with this viewpoint for twenty years now, making I Am Easy to Find a surprise in that, eight albums later, Berninger expands his point-of-view.
The album accomplishes this with a roster of female guest vocalists, ranging from Bowie veteran Gail Ann Dorsey to Sharon van Etten and Lisa Hannigan. Most National records feel like an auteurist indie movie where not much happens, but the characters feel so damn much. This new record is that in ensemble form, a simple yet daring transformation.
This cinematic analogy is apropos as the band brought in Oscar-winning director Mike Mills to create a 25-minute companion film to the album starring Alicia Vikander, also pictured on the album cover. It is much more than a side promotion, as Mills is credited as a co-producer on the album.
More cooks behind the scenes mean more flexible song structures that befit Aaron Dessner’s classical music side gig (there are 13 violinists alone credited). It also means more opportunities for annotation, discord, differing perspectives between Berninger and his roster of new singers, and a greater role for Berninger’s wife, lyricist Carin Besser.
What was once a monologue is now a conversation, exemplified by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus-led ‘Dust Swirls in Strange Light,’ or when Berninger is almost wholly overpowered by Eve Owen on ‘Where is Her Head.’ Yet he still finds the time for a Mark Kozelek-esque stream of consciousness on the near-seven-minute ‘Not in Kansas.’
Arriving a mere 18 months after their previous record, marking their fastest turnaround, I Am Easy to Find is often not. It is their longest record at 63 minutes, this length being both a blessing and a curse. Mills and the band can bask in their revitalized perspectives, leaving room for a studio version of the live favourite ‘Rylan,’ but also indulging in their unhurriedness, to the fault of no individual track except for ‘So Far So Fast.’ Sacrificing grandiosity for purpose, the band is often labelled boring, but the subtly radical departures of this and 2017’s Sleep Well Beast show they’re anything but.
In a press release, they stated that the idea for the album only came after the film had already been shot. This grants a clearer picture for why the record luxuriates as much as it does since certain tracks accompanying the film play a more emotional role than they do on the record. Still, a film is a film and an album is an album. For their eighth, The National have proven they still have plenty left to say, even if they need others to say it.
Standout Tracks: ‘Not in Kansas,’ ‘Light Years,’ ‘I Am Easy to Find,’ ‘You Had Your Soul With You.’