The National's 'I Am Easy to Find' Is a Tangle of Beautiful, Messy Humanity
The National's eighth album is not as easy to locate or to live with, as its title suggests, but it contains passages of sublime beauty and grace.
I Am Easy to Find
17 May 2019
I Am Easy to Find is the eighth album from the National in almost 20 years. In that time they have also issued two robust EPs and curated the rather mixed blessing that was the Grateful Dead tribute behemoth, Day of the Dead (2016). They have maintained admirable independence, both artistic and commercial, throughout this time, and as a result have achieved a rare and successful autonomy, freedom to make the music they have wanted to make, in their own way and on their own schedule. Many, if not most bands who graduate from bar to club to large room to arena to stadium almost inevitably sacrifice something of themselves somewhere along the way and tip over into bombast and unearned self-importance.
That has not been the case with the National. They have maintained their dignity while expanding the limits of their sound. Multiple side projects have emerged along the way (singer Matt Berninger's EL VY with Menomena's Brent Knopf and Aaron Dessner's Big Red Machine with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon being just two notable examples). Over all of that time and all of that material, we should probably have formed a good idea of who the National are, for all that they have continued to grow and evolve and therefore change as they have aged and their interests and associations have proliferated. And indeed they do have what might be called a signature sound, a sound which is beloved by their now sizable fan base and somewhat blithely dismissed by their detractors.
The National sound, if it can be characterized in brief, consists of several key hallmarks. There is, of course, Matt Berninger's sonorous and simultaneously plaintive voice, both intimate and detached, melancholy and phlegmatic, occasionally just downright angry. There is also the intricate and at the same time majestic sound created by the Dessner brothers using a combination of guitars, keyboards and who knows what other magic to conjure by turns modulations of orchestral and chamber rock music that seem, frankly, timeless, of no particular era or genre.
This sound has deployed more electronic instruments and effects over time. And then there is the peerless, and often just scary rhythm section maintained and operated by the formidable Devendorf brothers. There are times when listening to the National that you may be forgiven for thinking that drummer Bryan Devendorf is the not-so-secret brains of the operation because so many of their songs ultimately seem to revolve around his juddering and bewildering rhythmic patterns. Indeed, their live shows sometimes dramatize that open little secret as the band have assembled around the drum kit at the apotheosis of a given song's particularly feverish and simultaneously communal performance.
There are some things to note about this band dynamic, both to recap for the veteran followers and to lay out for newcomers or the lukewarm. First, this is a sound of contrasts and dynamics, and the interplay between all band members is critical to the achievement of that dynamic. The composition of the band is also interesting. That there are two sets of brothers, one set handling each half of the songs' chemical makeup, fronted by Berninger, whose lugubrious and doleful melody sometimes devolves or explodes into unhinged ranting, makes for a genuinely fascinating display of psychic tension and connectivity.
There is a real dialectic in this interplay that often resolves into moments and passages of pure beauty. But the dialectic itself is somehow founded in tension and discord that the music, the rhythms, and the lyrics of the songs seem to enact, in multiple enthralling ways, throughout the band's career. The band has also almost always seemed to have been an almost hermetically sealed high-performance musical engine, cohering the strange DNA of two sets of brothers and Berninger into a sound that both confuses and crystallizes, sometimes by turns, sometimes at once.
Their albums have not always come easy to them, partly as a result of this blended family dynamic and partly as a natural result of any creative process, but this also means that sometimes their albums do not come easy to us either. It can sometimes take a while for National albums to settle in. Sure, you can hear a new one and be fairly sure that you're going to like it, even love it, that it's an instant classic. But you can just as easily hear another new one and wonder if this time they've finally lost you, only to realize a few months later that it just needed time to settle and resolve itself. So a public consideration of a new album from the National should acknowledge its provisionality, the possibility that we might not know yet quite what it is that we're hearing. And in the case of I Am Easy to Find, there is an awful lot to take in. This is a long album. There are 16 songs, and the whole thing is over an hour long. Furthermore, the album is also accompanied by a short film of the same name that uses stems from some of the songs as its soundtrack.
As a set of 16 songs, I Am Easy to Find is almost too much to digest. However, there are other ways to come at the material that might allow it to unfold itself. For example, if you consider this work not as a single entity, but as two albums, the first eight songs from "You Had Your Soul With You" to "Her Father in the Pool", and the second eight songs from "Where Is Her Head" to the closing "Light Years", the entire project opens up in a rather different way. It also makes the digestion of the material much easier and avoids possible listener fatigue in the second half of what you might otherwise think of as a single set of songs.
The National's previous albums have been known to start in a place of confusion and dissonance and then resolve themselves into clarity and beauty sooner or later. The time signature of Boxer opener "Fake Empire" still seems confounding after all these years, High Violet's "Terrible Love", is a jarring and muddy experience, and Trouble Will Find Me's "I Should Live in Salt" shudders and jolts in an uncertain time and place. But each of these songs prefaces a startling sequence of truly lovely lyrical and musical experiences. So the skittering electronics and thudding drums that open "You Had Your Soul With You" seem like business as usual. And indeed the song itself seems like a fairly standard, albeit very high quality, National offering. For precisely two minutes, the National appear to be tilling their usual field, and quite successfully. But right at that moment, Gail Ann Dorsey enters the proceedings with a deep and tender vocal intervention that is both surprising and refreshing, and so begins what is being widely viewed as a significant new chapter in the band's history. This is the moment when the National become a host entity as well as just a really great band.
Indeed, the buzz about this new release was that, to some consternation here and there, the National were introducing an array of female guest singers, including Bowie alumna Dorsey, Sharon Van Etten, Kate Stables from This Is the Kit, Bryce Dessner's wife, Pauline de Lassus Saint-Geniès (whose stage name is Mina Tindle, and who has also appeared on Boxer), singer-songwriter Eve Owens, Lisa Hannigan, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. The effect of this rotating cast of female voices is startling, partly because it is strange and new to hear Berninger sing in partnership with another voice, but also because some of those voices are singing lyrics we are accustomed to hearing from him. But in truth, this new direction also feels quite natural and organic, and since Berninger has collaborated on lyrics with his wife Carin Besser for many years (since Boxer), it would be disingenuous to think that Berninger has been alone all of this time anyway. The introduction of Dorsey and the other singers is merely a confirmation of the band's naturally collaborative and democratic instinct, but it does formally enact that instinct and seems to represent the sound of a band opening up and blossoming at a stage in their career when you might expect them to be rather more entrenched.
The deployment of those new voices is very astute, and indeed key to the success of the album. On "You Had Your Soul With You", Dorsey's voice is a surprise because it's the first time that it happens, but it's also surprising because she sounds very much like Tracey Thorn here, which sends the mind spinning off into imagining other collaborations. But the introduction of a second voice here is most surprising because the lyric that Dorsey sings offers a beautiful first-person counterpoint to what has previously been Berninger singing in the second person. So we go from the male voice singing "You had your soul with you," to the female voice entering the song to sing on her behalf, "I have ordered to my heart every word I've said / You have no idea how hard I died when you left." So we get a truly dialogic dynamic in action, and we get a lovely contrast of voices and perspectives. And we also get a new perspective on Berninger's (and Besser's) lyrics, which have always occupied an interesting place between conversational directness and Ashberian abstraction. They often seem to make sense while also never quite making the kind of sense that we tend to make in our everyday conversations and interactions. Hearing Dorsey sing them here puts that feeling into relief, and it's startling.
"You Had Your Soul With You" begins a passage of eight songs that the National may not have bettered anywhere in their lengthy catalog. Every song's arrangement is impeccable in every detail, as the band blend old familiar sounds (the piano intro to "Quiet Light" that recalls "Fake Empire, for example) with new ones (the plucked pulse that opens "Oblivions" is particularly effective). The lyric of "Quiet Light" is almost unbearable in its poignant admission of the pain and weight of time, memory and regret: I used to fall asleep to you talking to me I don't listen to anything now Nothing to do with us I'm just so tired of thinking about everything I'm not afraid of being alone I just don't know what to do with my time Between you and me I thought it would all last a little while longer
There may well not be a single better or simply more beautiful song in their songbook than "Oblivions" which is just perfectly constructed and executed in every way, from the aforementioned plucked intro, to the brief roiling drum figure before the vocal, to the gorgeous interplay between Berninger and Pauline de Lassus (aka Mina Tindle), the lyrical pre-figuring of "I am easy to find," and the female chorus that becomes apparent as the song progresses. Every ounce and second of "Oblivions" is pristine and delectable. This suite continues with knockout punch after knockout punch, so much so that it is almost hard to keep track of the moments that contain the potential to stop you dead in your tracks.
"The Pull of You", for example, which Berninger sings with Lisa Hannigan, is an immensely complex song. It appears to be a remnant of the Sleep Well Beast sessions, but it comes into its own here. Driven by a woozy electronic pulse and Bryan Devendorf's fiendish drum patterns, the first voice we hear is Lannigan's, not Berninger's, more evidence of the power of the band's decision to open this project up to extensive collaboration. Shortly after Berninger's singing voice joins the song, he embarks on a spoken word passage which is followed by one of those fierce National rock and roll workouts where everything seems to be headed for a cliff. Only for Lannigan's spoken word contribution to pull us back from the brink, after which Gail Ann Dorsey steps in once more to take the baton for the sumptuous "Hey Rosey". You can see from this brief catalog how these experiences might well add up to something close to overwhelming for the listener.
These brief song summaries only hint at the richness and complexity of those first eight songs, but they also point up the fervor (and the tenderness) that the band can work up behind Berninger's capacious lyrical range, and to set those lyrics in the context of a dialogue rather than a monologue also offers a new and very welcome perspective. Berninger is no longer talking to himself, but he is also no longer allowed to go unanswered. What he had seen previously might be labeled Berninger Agonistes, a singer in the throes of angst, lonely, conflicted, sorrowful, disconsolate. But here, Berninger Agonistes is tempered and leveled out by all of these friends and modulating voices, beginning what might be perhaps a more dialogic and less solipsistic lyrical mode.
Berninger has always worn his sadness easily, measuring out his melancholy with elegance and discretion, dealing anger only rarely and in extremis. But this agonistic mode can become like an old cardigan, comfortable and ultimately a little stale for all of its performative angst. So it's pleasantly jarring to hear others share the load here, and the songs that begin like relatively typical National songs only to introduce a female voice instead of his (or which introduce female voices before his, as happens several times here) are an ingenious refresh of what might be considered their hallmark sound.
And so the first set of songs ends with the gentle and almost serene title track, followed by an almost hymnal passage from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. This octet suite is unrelentingly marvelous and could stand on its own as a quite brilliant album of eight just about perfect pieces of music. However, it is also self-evidently quite exhausting, albeit emotionally and aesthetically very satisfying. But to continue onto the ninth song and the tenth song and so on seems like a tall order, and this is why it seems to make sense to draw a line under the first half of the work and consider the second eight songs separately, related to but distinct from their predecessors.
So, while "Where Is Her Head" might otherwise be a rather lackluster track nine on a 16-song album, and "Not In Kansas" might be a bridge too far at six minutes and track ten of a single set, followed in turn by yet another song that exceeds six minutes ("So Far So Fast"), taken together they are tremendous openers to the second series of songs. They also offer a reset of the mood and tempo from the previous eight songs. "Where Is Her Head" is a barnstorming song that ruffles every feather, softening us up for what is to follow. Believe it or not, "Not in Kansas" is 17 stanzas lighter than it started, thanks to Mike Mill's judicious editing, in which he served rather loosely as Ezra Pound to Berninger's T.S. Eliot. And this is another critical aspect of the collaborative nature of this undertaking. Because not only have the band called upon the partnership of other singers, occasionally de-emphasizing or complementing Berninger's contribution, they have also ceded no little control of the arrangements and the sequencing of the album to Mills, whose filmic consciousness adds something to the project that also contributes to the rejuvenation of the band's sound and their approach.
Others have noted that there are times on this album when the National effectively disappear (much as Radiohead tried with varying degrees of success to erase themselves on Kid A). Indeed, Berninger takes a back seat quite frequently here, whether it's at the beginning of "Where Is Her Head", or the twinned absences of "So Far So Fast" and "Dust Swirls in Strange Light". And let's face it, this might not have been an easy series of decisions to make. To have the courage to give your work over to others, to step out of the spotlight, to hand over significant control of the album to a filmmaker, to democratize even more fully what was already a pretty avowedly democratic and collaborative band by delegating still more authority and control, all of this could have been the cause of some growing pains and some hurt egos. Letting go is painful and challenging. Revision and editing are hard. But this particular body of work seems to have been enriched, thickened and enhanced by its own creative bravery, and the band's identity remains intact at the end.
As the second set of songs continues to its conclusion there is a sense that we are taking care of some unfinished business, particularly as the live chestnut "Rylan" finally gets an airing in a recorded context. Longtime fans might be delighted for this song finally to see the light of day, but it has to be noted that while the song works well enough, it feels by the point when it appears on the album to be a little rote, boilerplate National material. There is, though, also a clever lyrical gesture in "Underwater you're almost free" that points toward the following instrumental and penultimate song "Underwater", which in turn paves the way for the extraordinarily poignant and beautiful closer "Light Years".
It's interesting to note that Berninger finds himself alone again at the end, harmonizing with himself once more, until an unidentified female voice seems to accompany him, dropping in and out as he sings, "Light years, light years away from you" along with a quite sublime piano figure. And so, for all the intimacy and connection that has been established over an hour of soul-bearing, democratizing, inclusive words and music, we find ourselves once again atomized and alone. It turns out, then, that "I Am Easy to Find" was always a feint, perhaps too good be true. The tropes of seeking and finding, sometimes winning and losing, proximity and distance, gains and reversals, these are common motifs through Berninger's lyrical lexicon and emotional spectrum.
And so we revert here at the end of this wonderful marathon, to the restless struggle and agonistic difficulty of "If I stay here, trouble will find me" from "Sea of Love". Peace, the object of our affection, contentment, take your pick, they all remain "hard to find", as the closer from Trouble Will Find Me had it, "light years away" as this album's closer says, and you realize that these wins and losses, gains and reversals, are after all the lingua franca of the National. There is, after all, an immanent kind of abject expressionism coursing through their entire body of work. While the National have been transformed and enhanced by the tendrils of connection that have grown out into a wider world here with this bold and remarkable series of collaborations and joint ventures, they also remain their essential selves, one of our truly great bands, one of our most human, and one of our bravest, both easy to find and hard to find at the same time.
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