I Am Easy to Find is a much-needed rejoinder to the idea that the band has rested on their laurels.
Indie rock has been done no favors by the conservatism favored by some of its brightest turn-of-the-century luminaries. The supposed last stand for rock’s relevance, indie quickly faded from its late-‘00s experimentation and boldness into just the sort of crusty, sluggish, formulaic material that made rock feel moribund even before Y2K. For years, The National were one of the most egregious offenders; having exploded with a three-album run that found them balancing the icy, dour chill of Joy Division’s studio work with some of that band’s explosive live energy, the band seemed like a particularly bright light of the post-punk revival. Gradually, however, they hit the limit of their sound, not expanding but instead settling into a groove that produced solid but vaguely stolid records that felt middle-of-the-road despite not deviating too far from the albums that made their name. At some point, they seemed to be next in line to inherit U2’s shtick as the post-punk dad rock band of the day.
All of this makes I Am Easy to Find, the band’s eighth and longest, LP, a complete shock. From the fragmented riff that opens “You Had Your Soul with You,” the album futzes with The National’s sound like nothing else in their discography. Where before Bryan Devendorf’s drumming did most of the heavy lifting in terms of bringing energy to the band’s melancholic atmosphere, here the guitar darts chaotically like Adrian Belew-era King Crimson, adding lines that are dense in their noisiness but sparse in the constant clipping of notes as if the guitarists were using kill- switches instead of strumming strings. Lyrically, Matt Berninger still croons about the way love lifts us up just to drag us low, but the careening musicality, and guest vocals from Gail Ann Dorsey, give Berninger’s outlook new dimensions.
Dorsey’s involvement prefigures the recurring input of female vocalists such as Lisa Hannigan and Sharon Van Etten throughout the album, adding contrapuntal moods of yearning to Berninger’s low moan. On “Roman Holiday,” Dorsey’s breathy harmonies give added weight to the lyrics, which reference the romance between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. The National has always excelled at accentuating the pain (and, sometimes, pleasure) of the mundane, and Berninger and Dorsey’s duet captures the dull ache of remembering a lost love, faintly smiling at the reminiscence but wincing at the way certain things remind you of someone who is no longer here. Mina Tindle takes leads on “Oblivions” in which she directly and passionately conveys the hesitation and desperate hope with which Berninger has always written about relationships. What might otherwise have been a piano ballad about putting trust in the uncertainty of another person instead brims with the arduous internal struggle of accepting that “You’re gonna stop need to tell me/ You want me as much as I want you to tell me.”
The addition of guest vocalists shakes up the band’s largely unchanged sound, but so too does the added input of the group’s own musicians, who add dimensions rarely heard in their other albums. “Dust Swirls in Strange Light” underscores chanted vocals from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus with faintly echoing keyboard chords and a buzzing electronic beat eventually joined by Devendorf’s more muscular acoustic drumming. “Quiet Light” skitters on a springy riff before drifting into a more traditional National arrangement of whirring electronic fills over a shuffling, snare-heavy drumbeat. On the album’s show-stopping centerpiece, “Not in Kansas,” the band edges close to some kind of cosmic pastoral, wistful stargazing introduced by a brittle guitar line before post-rock chimes of gently squalling guitar and tone pulses of synths swell up from the distance. Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan and Kate Stables contribute group vocals that hang in the air like a ghostly country chorus before a violin scrapes into view. Berninger brings some of his finest-ever lyrics to bear here as he embraces the band’s status as semi-elder statesmen. Berninger was always an underrated humorist, but this track is stuffed with hilarious musings like “The First Testament was really great. The sequel was incredible” likening the Bible to the first two Godfather films or the early Strokes LPs. All the while, he ruminates on the bittersweetness of nostalgia, revisiting old records for a tinge of feeling young while coming to terms with the realities of getting older.
At times, the band either reaches too far outside its comfort zone (as on the enervating overlaps of spoken word on “The Pull of You”) or stays too sedate in its lane (the stagnant miasma of “Hey Rosey”), and one gets the sense that they could have pared this down to single-LP length and wound up with their finest record in a decade. But then, even as things stand they have managed just that, retaining the best of their recent work while channeling the verve of their early classics into new experiments.
Berninger is at the top of his game throughout, as on the deep observations of “Hairpin Turns,” which chronicles the way external stimuli of economic and other hardships can erode even the most solid of internal foundations. “You held back the worst rain/ From my shoulders then” he remembers of a relationship, only to then recount how mounting pressures resulted in tacit resentments where “You go quiet and leave me in the wake of a look.” “Rylan,” a track that has made the live rounds for much of the decade and finally gets a fleshed-out, fully augmented studio version, is likewise profound in its simplicity, addressing a sullen, withdrawn child from the perspective of a parent who is at once exasperated by the child’s isolated behavior and empathetic from their own memories of introversion and fear. Bolstered by the strongest back half The National have ever recorded, I Am Easy to Find is a much-needed rejoinder to the idea that the band has rested on their laurels, not a return to form but an indication that they are still open to exploring new ideas.