Over the course of seven albums and a career that’s lasted twenty years, the National have accrued their fair share of trademark habits.
For one, there’s the unmistakable moodiness of the band’s songs—brooding tales of suburban anxieties and the tender nature of love. There’s also the meticulous musicianship each member contributes, together creating a sonic atmosphere rich with crisp percussion, forlorn piano melodies, and deconstructed guitar lines. Yet, despite the invaluable contributions of twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner and brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf, it is the voice of singer Matt Berninger that most singularly reflects the National’s sound.
With a graveled baritone that adds weight to every word, Berninger has always served as the glue that binds the National’s sound. However, on the National’s latest record, it takes less than three minutes before the somewhat expected sound of opener “You Had Your Soul with You” reveals a surprise: When the voice of Gail Ann Dorsey—a longtime member of David Bowie’s band—enters midway through the track, what for seven albums has been an inner monologue suddenly blossoms into a conversation. Spotlighted in songs more complex than duets yet just as intimate, the presence of powerful women throughout “I Am Easy to Find” becomes its core identity. Throughout the album, appearances from Mina Tindle, Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten, Kate Stables, Eve Owen, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus serve not as cameos, but as the record’s emotional and spiritual anchor.
As the story goes, back in 2017, the band was still fully focused on the release of their last album, “Sleep Well Beast,” when they received an email from director Mike Mills (Beginners,” “20th Century Women”). He wanted to collaborate, so the National sent him a batch of songs that had not made the cut for “Beast” and told him to go wild. The result is two things that share a name but are best considered as companion projects. “I Am Easy to Find” is thus both a 26-minute short film directed by Mills and starring Alicia Vikander, as well as the National’s boldest album to date.
In interviews discussing the releases, members of the National have suggested that the two projects developed in parallel, with Mills’ film influencing the album’s music and vice-versa. This is arguably most apparent in the inclusion of three interlude, most instrumental tracks on the record: “Her Father in the Pool,” “Dust Swirls in Strange Light,” and “Underwater.”
Perhaps more important though is the subject of the short film, which follows the life of an unnamed woman (Vikander) from birth to death. Although Berninger’s wife, former New Yorker editor Carin Besser, has contributed to the group as songwriter dating back to 2007’s “Boxer,” her contributions arguably never have been more vital than they are here. That’s because on “I Am Easy to Find,” the focal point has widened: No longer does the music orbit around Berninger—instead he is debated, echoed, overtaken and comforted by strong performances from Van Etten, Owen and more.
On the downbeat title track, Berninger and Kate Stables (This is the Kit) harmonize with ghostly beauty as they proclaim, “I’m still waiting for you every night with ticker tape.” Towards the end of the record, the slow, shimmering “So Far So Fast” dispenses with the pretext of Berninger entirely, instead opening with the voice of Irish singer Lisa Hannigan. It isn’t until the song’s bridge that the National’s frontman reappears, seemingly right at home as the backing vocal in someone else’s story.
The inclusion of female singers throughout “I Am Easy to Find” presents an interesting crossroads for a band whose reputation is somewhat based on its consistency. Having survived the great culling of early 2000s rock acts, Berninger and company began to tweak their formula with the subtle pop undertones of 2013’s “Trouble Will Find Me” and the electronic tributaries that flow through “Sleep Well Beast.” Now, less than two years removed from the latter, they’ve broken with tradition entirely.
But lest anyone worry, this is still a proper National album.
Poetic and enigmatic lyrics? Check. On “The Pull of You,” Berninger is in top form when he unconvincingly suggests, “Maybe we’ll end up the ones eating chocolate chip pancakes / Next to a charity swimming pool.” Achingly beautiful ballads? Check. The record’s final cut, “Light Years” employs a gorgeous, methodic piano line to underscore a meditation on the fragility of connection and the hopelessness of distance. Exacting production craft? Naturally. It’s easy to spot the influence of the Dessner twins across the album, from the flourish of strings on “The Pull of You” to the interplay of vocals on “Oblivions.”
“I Am Easy to Find” may be a gamble—its lengthy runtime, forays into the abstract, and diversity of voices probably eliminate it as an ideal entry point into the band for new listeners—but it’s a calculated one. By allowing their diligently designed blueprint to take a new, unexpected form, the National haven’t ceded the spotlight, only broadened it.