Album number 8 from Ohio success story The National. I Am Easy To Find is not just an album, it's also a short film directed by Mike Mills - the guy who directed 20th Century Women, not the R.E.M bassist. Mills co-produced the album with the band. It includes guest performances from a whole host of artists including Sharon Van Etten and Lisa Hannigan.
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I have a feeling the National knew what they were doing when they called this album I Am Easy To Find. This is a band who after all, have released a song called ‘Hard To Find’. And I think this shows a band acknowledging that something has changed. That things are going to be different.
Matt Berninger has long been able to capture isolation and despondency through his voice. When there have been backing vocals, as on High Violet’s ‘Afraid of Everyone’, they’ve been used to exaggerate his loneliness.
But here on I Am Easy To Find Berninger is rarely alone. Sharon Van Etten, Gail Ann Dorsey and a number of other female vocalists all sing with him. They duet with him, they trade verses with him, they song over him. On ‘The Pull Of You’ Etten opens the damn song. And it’s shocking. I’ve grown so used to the National’s arrangements with Berninger at their centre, so used to him standing alone against a tide of complicated instrumentation, that these other voices are made all the more powerful.
And yes, for the most part this is the same instrumentation we’ve come to expect from the band. Wonderful militaristic drumming, haunting strings and horns, the occasional bit of out of place electronic messing (looking at you ‘You Had Your Soul With You’). But the introduction of these outsiders has breathed fresh life into a band who have become one of indie rock’s most reliable institutions. I think there’s a lesson in that.
9/10 LH 21st May 2019
The National have long had the reputation of being a comfortably predictable band who retain their signature style from album to album, where only the hardcore fans are able to point out the intricate changes in style and tone that separate them. 2017's Sleep Well Beast and its textural changes (more electronic parts, more risks in song structures) shook the formula up to some extent and I Am Easy to Find goes further from there. There's barely any clear verse/chorus/verse structures, choral interludes appear throughout, the notion of a five-piece rock band have been brushed off completely in instrumentation and most notably Matt Berninger takes a backseat for a good half the album, with guest vocals frequently taking the lead or the very least singing in unison with Berninger. It's the sound of The National breaking apart their traditional elements and rebuilding them into something entirely different.
For a shake-up such as this, I Am Easy to Find is strikingly subtle. It rarely breaks away from mid-tempo or slower and despite the vast amount of changes each song is united by a shared sonic palette. It's not an album that necessarily brags with a great number of obvious stand-out cuts, but it's more importantly an uniform experience. Much has been made about the album's connection with the Mike Mills short film of the same name and soundtracked by alternate takes from the album, conceived together but independently from the album, with both products influencing each other during development. The most obvious influence the film brings is the cinematic nature of the album: each song a scene that supports its surrounding ones, lyrics reappearing throughout to establish shared themes, the flow of the album designed to take you from one moment to another. And then the familiar National elements begin to appear: the Dessners' intricate arrangements, Bryan Devendorff's incredible drumming, Berninger's heartbreaker lyrical moments, and the gift for a wonderful melody.
It's still unmistakably a record by The National, where fans will find more things to love and the non-believers are unlikely to be converted. It's a different kind of National record though, one that lays out a mood rather than adds more sadsack anthems into their setlist. The mood is enchanting and frequently drop-dead gorgeous, and while more subtle the big songs to cling to are still present throughout. I Am Easy to Find is a transformation from a band frequently snarked at being a little one-note, and through that transformation they've created one of 2019's true standouts.
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