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Resequence: The National: I Am Easy to Find

Resequence: The National: I Am Easy to Find

I Am Easy to Find is a long ride with some questionable sequencing choices. A handful of unnecessary moments drag the album down.

The National has formed an identity over the course of its career as the quintessential “grower” band: if you don’t like one of its albums, all you need to do is listen to it five or six more times and, poof – it becomes your record of the year. While some may hold firm to the belief most recent album, I Am Easy to Find, is a “total snoozefest,” three trips through its bright and vibrant landscape were enough for me to fall in love to the point of total obsession. It was easy to get lost in the space within each song, in the words of singer Matt Berninger and in the voices of the incredible women (including Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan, Kate Stables and many others), and in the symbiotic relationship between the album and director Mike Mills’ accompanying short film. However,I Am Easy to Find is a long ride with some questionable sequencing choices. A handful of unnecessary moments drag the album down.

Perhaps, though, it’s possible to get too close to your subject material to know how to alter it on your own. Presented here is a version created not by me, but by North Carolina songwriter Al Riggs, whose revision is thoughtful enough that it warrants its own dissection. Their resequencing of the album wisely reconstructs its ebb and flow, using its most interesting and creative songs as counterpoints to its most stunning moments – while also showing a little more respect for the placement of songs that deserve much higher billing than Berninger & Co. gave them. What’s remarkable is that despite very little omission, this Resequence presents an entirely different album and, at times, it’s more engaging than the official version.

Tracklist:

1. “I Am Easy to Find”
2. “You Had Your Soul With You”
3. “Quiet Light”
4. “Rylan”
5. “Roman Holiday”
6. “Oblivions”
7. “Not in Kansas”
8. “Hairpin Turns”
9. “The Pull Of You”
10. “Hey Rosey”
11. “Where Is Her Head”
12. “So Far So Fast”
13. “Light Years”

1. “I Am Easy To Find”

While it may seem wild to start I Am Easy to Find with the slow and sullen title track instead of the glitchy lead single, “You Had Your Soul with You,” consider: Sleep Well Beast did the same thing with “Nobody Else Will Be There.” And yet, the song serves as a remarkably good introduction to the differences in the world of I Am Easy To Find, namely the fact that there’s so many excellent women vocalists on the album. Former tourmate Stables (otherwise known as This Is the Kit) joins Berninger for the length of the song, save for one moment where she drops out for him to echo Guided By Voices’ “Echos Myron.”

2. “You Had Your Soul With You”

With the title track serves as the album’s prologue, “You Had Your Soul With You” feels like its first chapter. It wouldn’t be right to push it back any farther, if for no reason than the fact that it benefits so much from the moment where Dorsey, Bowie’s former bassist, drops in on vocals to knock everyone listening on their asses with her powerful-but-brief verse. She steals the show, and this placement makes it feel like Dorsey is saying to the audience, “What? You thought we were going to whisper the whole time?”

3. “Quiet Light”

Completing the opening triptych by giving us one with Berninger almost entirely alone (something that is – ahem – “Hard To Find” here), “Quiet Light” shouldn’t be separated from “You Had Your Soul With You.” Everyone else leaves him to sing about loneliness, but he does so while coasting on the energy of the song before it with something that’s still effervescent. The one-two punch of “You Had Your Soul With You” and “Quiet Light” is one of the band’s finest sequencing choices, and we shouldn’t trifle with that.

4. “Rylan”

And then comes one of their worst sequencing choices: after years of play everywhere from KEXP to Q (the latter of which dating back to 2011 – look at how different Berninger looks in that video! – is much different), the song amassed a substantial amount of love from National acolytes – only for the band to relegate it to the album’s penultimate track. That just won’t do, and after “Quiet Light,” Stables returns to play tag-team on vocals with Berninger, cresting into a triumphant ending that feels like the resolution of the colorful energy of the two before it. That same ending admittedly feels great leading into finale “Light Years,” but this placement is more fitting.

5. “Roman Holiday”

Never the band to overpower the listener with too many oversized songs, we pull back substantially with the moody Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe-starring “Roman Holiday.” It’s not an actual energy halt, and it builds on itself tastefully enough that you can almost miss that it’s happening – keeping the album from stalling out, and helps us coast wonderfully into “Oblivions.”

6. “Oblivions”

Is it cheating at the game of Resequence to keep chunks of the album together? Who cares? “Oblivions” fits after “Roman Holiday” spectacularly. Mina Tindle plays the romantic lead alongside Berninger, standing in for his actual wife, Carin Besser (who co-wrote the song, among others on the album) as long-married people confessing that no matter how long you’ve been together, it can still be goddamn terrifying: “I still got my fear,” they repeat. A charming antidote to dour “Roman Holiday.”

7. “Not in Kansas”

On the official version, the wordy masterpiece “Not in Kansas” lands at #10. Much like “Rylan,” that’s not fair – you need to hear it earlier. The difference is that “Rylan” is a banger, while “Not in Kansas” is the most alien track within the band’s catalog. Berninger rambles autobiographically, but he does so masterfully, tossing out lines that land like bricks: “It’s half your fault/ So half forgive me” “My bedroom is a stranger’s gunroom/ Ohio’s in a downward spiral/ I can’t go back there anymore/ Since alt-right opium went viral.” Dorsey, Stables and Irish faerie/Damien Rice associate/Blue Diamond Hannigan deliver jawdropping performances, rising up as though on a cloud three times to sing a hymnal-inspired interpolation of Thinking Fellers Union Local 282’s “Noble Experiment.” None of this should work, but it’s indispensable, and it deserves to be higher up.

8. “Hairpin Turns”

Moved from #13 to #8, the lush and weepy “Hairpin Turns” serves as a return to the norm. While it feels like it should be in the final act, the song it originally played antidote to, “Dust Swirls in Strange Light,” is the sole necessary omission from the album. It also works better as a salve for “Not in Kansas,” which fits into it far better. A third version of this could move “Hairpin” between “So Far So Fast” and “Light Years,” demonstrating just how versatile the song is.

9. “The Pull of You”

In this version of the album, the placement of “The Pull of You” directly after the calming “Hairpin Turns” is one of the best troll moves Berninger ever pulled. This song is great, but it presents a weird puzzle piece, and while its placement just after “Oblivions” felt like a freak rainstorm on a sunny day, placed after “Hairpin Turns” it serves as a left hook to the jaw. It’s weird, and it’s weird in ways that even “Not in Kansas” never even touches.

Berninger alternates between singing with Hannigan, delivering spoken-word babbling (choice segment: “I know, I get it/ I’m either at the bottom of a well or spinning into somebody’s outdoor glass furniture/ Is this how I lose it? Everything at once? Carried to space by a dolphin balloon?”), and screaming. Oh, and occasionally, Sharon Van Etten shows up for some weird dialogue. It’s wild, and halfway through the album, it’s a nice jostle.

10. “Hey Rosey”

Originally coming in at #6, “Hey Rosey” starts off seeming like a return to a place of gentle calm, it – like a more chaotic “Roman Holiday” – chooses instead to become a titan. By now, we’re aware of what a force of nature Dorsey is, and “Hey Rosey” is the one song that seeks to match her intensity, so when she sings “I will love you like there’s razors in it/ And she’ll love you like a radiant flame/ There’s never really any safety in it,” you really feel it. Moved back from #6, it spreads her performances out just enough that every time she comes back to the foreground, it feels awe-inspiring. Plus, this song’s intensity leads us into “Where Is Her Head” surprisingly well.

11. “Where Is Her Head”

Then “Where Is Her Head” arrives, converting the more severe energy of “Hey Rosey” into a burst of life and triumph. It pulls the focus almost entirely off Berninger and gives Eve Owen (daughter of Clive) the keys (with all due respect to Dorsey and Aaron Dessner, who play second fiddle to Owen), and roars in a way that seemed wasted coming off the atmospheric “Her Father in the Pool” and, conversely, makes the shift into “Not in Kansas” somewhat jarring. I Am Easy To Find is a very theatrical album, and being moved here gives the song the air of the penultimate song in a great musical.

12. “So Far So Fast”

As we hit the final two songs of the album, the comedown begins. The Hannigan-starring “So Far So Fast” fits perfectly next to the sorrow-stricken finale “Light Years” – rather than its original place between the flawless and weird “Not in Kansas” and the unnecessary “Dust Swirls in Strange Light,” even though the chorus that closes out “So Far So Fast” sets you up perfectly for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus-controlled “Dust Swirls.” After the four-minute mark, “So Far So Fast” begins to swell, never reaching anything one might call a “triumphant build,” but as it closes, it’s hard to not imagine it as a finale of sorts. This is one that benefits greatly from being pushed back, as its power feels drowned out after the knockout performances of “Not in Kansas.”

13. “Light Years”

As the most understated song of I Am Easy to Find and perhaps the most mournful-sounding closer the National have produced so far, “Light Years” plays like the album’s coda, or if you like, the song that plays alongside the credits. Berninger is the star of the song, but he’s given subtle backup vocals from the first chorus onward (though only in every other line of the second verse, an addictive choice).

There’s no place other than the end that “Light Years” should be, and keeping it here helps bookend the album: it bears the same spirit of defeat that “I Am Easy to Find” does, but one of resignation – while the former has a plan to help with being stuck in the same place (“I need to find some lower thinking if I’m gonna stick around”), “Light Years” knows definitively that, no matter what, it’ll always be “Light years away from you.” It brings Berninger’s defeatism full circle, but unlike the title track, he doesn’t get the benefit of the duet or the triumphant build, and much like “Videotape” left Radiohead’s In Rainbows feeling unresolved, “Light Years” leaves us with a fitting lack of closure. Could you imagine wasting that kind of power by putting it anywhere else but last?

Songs Omitted:

“Her Father in the Pool” and “Underwater”

Look, if we’re going to cut anything from the album, the lovely-but-needless pair of instrumental tracks are the most obvious choice. They’re good, but the National isn’t an “instrumental interlude” kind of band, with few songs that don’t feel like they were created and delivered with intention. While it’s not impossible for the band to become the kind that does do instrumentals, “Her Father” and “Underwater” play like interstitial leftovers from the I Am Easy to Find recording sessions, the kind that were pretty enough for every to say, “Fuck it, throw them in,” but not good enough to have been worthy of the fleshing-out process. Neither actually goes anywhere, and instead just give us momentary atmospherics. Prettiness isn’t enough to justify their continued presence, so they’re out.

“Dust Swirls in Strange Light”

For the most part, the aforementioned symbiotic relationship between I Am Easy to Find the album and I Am Easy to Find the Mills short film was fruitful, with each work shaping the other as the production process went along. “Dust Swirls in Strange Light” represents the least successful aspect of the endeavor: sung entirely by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, “Dust Swirls” is comprised of the Chorus singing lines from the onscreen text that accompanies the wordless film. Little about “Dust Swirls” resembles the National’s work outside of it, and the moments that do don’t appear until the last minute of the song – and by that point, you feel too jostled out of the album to enjoy the swirls of piano and strings.

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