Being a huge fan of The National offers an experience that is simultaneously smoothly comfortable and surprisingly refreshing. For a large part of their career, the band have remained relatively the same. You know what you’re likely going to get from them once a new album rolls around, but that’s not remotely a bad thing. The reasoning is probably because the band, with every successive release, have also tweaked their sound just enough to keep things unique and engaging. For as much as casual listeners or detractors want to argue that the band’s albums all sound the same, there’s a remarkable sense of change and growth with every release. It’s there, if you’re willing to actually listen. Having said all that, though, their newest release I Am Easy To Find attempts to stretch the furthest they have ever gone before in regards to change. This time, they’ve blown open their sound, inviting in a slew of guest singers and even a filmmaker to help throughout the process. It’s a bold move, but one that results in an album just as thrilling and enticing as ever before. In fact, the album’s biggest shift (which had this fan cautious and worried), winds up being the album’s best attribute
It wasn’t immediately apparent though. On the lead single, and album opener, “You Had Your Soul With You,” the addition of Gail Ann Dorsey for one verse didn’t feel revolutionary or all that warranted. It was a nice addition, but nothing that completely wowed me. Yet with more listens, it becomes apparent how vital a component the new voice is. For now it has been contextualized in a way that I can’t not think of it as table-setting for what comes on the rest of the album. For most of that song, we’re locked into a swirl of sounds from disjointed guitar to electronic elements and smattering of drums. And once again, we’re locked in Matt Berninger’s headspace (a comfortable place that I always cherish when listening to The National). But then, something changes. The track’s sound falls out through a trapdoor and Dorsey steps forward with her powerful voice to give the song more grounding. It acts as a counter to Matt’s words and a crucial addition to the story the song is telling. This is a theme that continues on every track that contains a new singer stepping into the forefront while Matt hangs back (or remains absent completely). This, as the band has stated, blows open the way they make music and what it might sound like in the future. For seven albums, we’ve been rattling around in Matt’s head as his every thought spills out anxiously and desperately. But on I Am Easy To Find, we get to inhabit the heads of others. It’s like a mental conversation we’re privy to, and that as a concept works its way around the entirety of this album.
The resulting tracks range from gorgeous duets to solo ventures to an overwhelming sense of emotion and chaos in equal measure. Yet that’s an idea that doesn’t become apparent until several tracks in. “Quiet Light” counters the added voice on the opener by dropping us right back into the darkness with Matt. The track’s sound, with its buzzing, nighttime electronic elements, sounds like a direct carryover from the Sleep Well Beast sessions. The theme echoes this too, as much of that album is about the imagined breakup between Matt and his wife (and songwriting partner) Carin. “Quiet Light” is the aftermath of these events, and thus a crucial placement in the tracklist as what follows builds upon the fears and anxiety of feeling utterly untethered and detached from others.
That concept of fear and what types of form it can take is quickly capitalized on with “Oblivions,” a song that adds immense colors to The National’s established design. Mina Tindle’s added vocals are delicate, yet just fast-paced enough to lock into place with the song’s smattering of drums and mournful strings. The repetition of “I’ve still got my fear” might seem deceptively simple at first, but it carries so much weight, especially in regards to the album’s driving narrative. It’s a song largely about the fear within a marriage, both celebrating the love that stands tall while acknowledging the doubt creeping around the corners. A few songs later, we get even more follow through with this idea on the title track, whose slow churn and sparse melody elevate the repeated “I am easy to find” to heavenly heights. In essence, the song is arguing that nobody is easy to find. We all lose sense of ourselves, and of each other, forever never being able to fully inhabit and thus understand a loved one’s headspace. Yet we try, just as the album does, to get more perspective.
What strikes me most about this as a thematic concept is how beautifully The National have composed it. Marriage problems and the like could easily be a subject matter that falls into the cliché, or could perhaps simply fail to resonate. But the way Matt writes about issues, and the way the musicians and singers all combine together keeps it not only engaging, but also rich with substance. A large portion of these songs cycle around disconnection and a need to change that. And although that’s brought up largely in the lyrics, the added vocalists directly address this simply by existing within these songs. Lisa Hannigan, is one of the best examples of bringing this idea to life. She first appears on “The Pull Of You,” which not coincidentally is the first track on the album that opens with someone’s voice other than Matt’s. As she flawlessly melds into the eerie blips of sound and drum fills, the song starts to spiral out of control in the best way possible. There are two spoken word pieces (one rattled off from Matt, the other from the great Sharon Van Etten), a verse that has Matt near-yelling a plea for connection, and a ghostly duet between Lisa and Matt. It’s experimental, in a sense, but also strangely moving and rewarding once you start to break it apart.
Though, it’s another song on the album where Lisa Hannigan really gets the spotlight put on her. Album highlight “So Far So Fast” is made up primarily of her own voice (with Matt only coming in for one verse alongside her). In terms of musically bringing the themes to life, this one might be one of the best examples. We get firmly planted in the mind of another narrator here, and that almost literal movement to another head is made apparent by the hazy electronic twinkles of light and subtly soft piano and guitar parts. It sounds like what a memory feels like, which is all the more fitting considering the lyrical content. As the song moves past the halfway mark, it quietly explodes into an extended instrumental coda that bursts with glimpses of color. Yet as it moves, it fails to reach a truly large climax, which is largely the point because as much as we want to immerse ourself within another’s mind, it remains just out of reach.
But just like how “So Far So Fast” attempts to redirect the band’s sound, it’s another song on the record that best exemplifies the way the band effortlessly change their style across the whole LP. I’m talking of course of “Where Is Her Head,” which as of this writing is a personal contender for best song on the LP. The full force of the string arrangements come into sharp focus through an energetic, constantly swirling soundscape complete with disparate voices and obscured lyrics. Almost instantly, you get completely caught up in the whirlwind of the music, due not only to the strings but also largely because of the vocals. Throughout the entire first verse of this song, we get multiple voices, one of which is Eve Owen. Along with Lisa Hannigan, she is one of the best utilizations of added vocalists on this LP. Her smooth, pleading vocals give the song so much weight and easily match Matt’s desperate, breathless delivery later in the song. It’s upbeat, in a way, but it’s the big churning rush of emotion and chaos that make it so.
On the flip side to “Where Is Her Head” is “Not In Kansas,” whose emotion and power come from the opposite place, one of utter stillness and solitude. It’s the sparsest, longest song on the record, and another major highlight. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a career highlight, specifically for Matt’s writing and singing. For much of the song, all we get is Matt rambling through his overflowing emotions circling around his hometown disillusionment, disconnection with his past, and inevitable death. Yes, it’s a heavy, sprawling topic, but it smartly adds an eerie, yet beautiful counterweight to this with two two verses from a chorus of a few singers populating other songs. They come in at the middle and end of the track, in attempt to keep Matt grounded. For as the song goes on and on, he seems to be spiraling down, almost resigning himself to utter darkness. There’s so much packed in here lyrically, with references, allusions, and metaphors. I won’t try to unpack it all here, but just know you’re in for a treat if you so choose to dig through it all.
But setting all that aside for a minute, we have to talk about “Rylan,” a song whose origin dates back about seven years. Apparently, they could never make it work on an album until now, yet it has sustained itself as a fan-favorite through the band’s various live recordings of it. The new, fully fleshed out studio version here, though somehow lives up to its reputation and then some. Pounding drums carry the song throughout, but the added piano, and later added guitar, just converge into an all-out energetic (and melancholic) rocker. This might be one of the best more rocking songs the band have put out in some time. Each verse builds on its mystique, with enough of a story to entice you, yet it also remains just obscured enough for you fill in the gaps with your own interpretation. The best moment of the song is towards the end when all the preceding sounds and vocals come back to reach utterly heavenly heights.
Although “Rylan” might initially seem like an outlier on the tracklisting, it actually adds to the wholeness of the record. For as mysterious as the song appears to be, it also ultimately brings up that topic of disconnection again. Which is then brought up even more directly and obviously on the album’s closer “Light Years.” It yet another closing song from The National that is stripped down and understated, which has become their go-to way to end things. Here it does so in strikingly beautiful fashion simply because of how immediately entrancing it is. The way in which the chaotic whirlwind of voices and instruments on all the preceding tracks fade away to provide a short, somber finale is perfect. It’s a song mainly built on gorgeous piano and quiet blips of electronics, with Matt providing some lonely vocals. Although it doesn’t feed back into the album’s opener as tightly as the tracks on Sleep Well Beast, it does provide a finality to this hour+ album.
The other as-of-yet-un-mentioned tracks might go down as the most under-appreciated ones on the album, maybe even for good reasons. “Roman Holiday” comes in early on the LP, and it’s one I still haven’t quite cracked. There’s a coldness to this song, with a sparse, not totally engrossing instrumental and vocals that almost seem too much at a distance. Then again, as is the case with many songs from The National, this one might very well grow on me immensely. In fact, that’s been the case for the other two traditional songs on the record. “Hey Rosey” was one that didn’t stick out at first, but wound up becoming one of my personal favorites on the album. It’s probably the best use of a duet between Matt and Gail Ann Dorsey (who might be the most utilized guest vocalist on this album). The way their voices blend together sounds like pure honey on this song, which goes hand-in-hand with the sweeping strings and jets of guitar noodling. “Hairpin Turns” was one of the pre-release tracks from the album, and remained a hard one to pin down until recently. There’s a stilted-ness to Matt’s vocal delivery throughout the verses on this song, which almost butts heads against the warbling instrumentals. But I think that’s completely the point because once the song gives way to the chorus, clarity strikes and we gets a nice repeating piano line and more directly harmonious singing. It’s maybe about that tension and release, which is a recurring musical idea across a number of these songs. Also a note about this track: Matt’s double-tracked vocals with one part being upper register and the other being deeply baritone is just incredible. There are several instances of this very same thing on past albums from The National, and it gets me every single time.
The rest of the tracks are more interludes rather than standard songs, which do serve a purpose in the grand scheme of the album as it helps the flow. Specially, “Her Father In The Pool” adds a nice touch as bridge between the first and second halves of the album (it works especially well listening on vinyl). Then there’s “Dust Swirls In Strange Light,” which is itself more than an interlude considering its length is akin to that of a normal song. It’s easily the, well, strangest song here as it only features a choir of vocals from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. The lyrics directly reference subtitles seen in the Mike Mills short film I Am Easy To Find (which was made in conjunction with this album – but neither are said to rely on the other). Yet this song almost doesn’t make any sense on the album if you have not seen the short film, and in that way, it doesn’t really need to be here. Though I am sort of coming around on its weirdness. The interjecting drums, piano, and strings are nice on the ears anyway.
Looking at it as a whole piece of work, I Am Easy To Find reminds me of both Sleep Well Beast and Trouble Will Find Me. Which is appropriate considering this album sort of acts as the end of this era of The National. It’s got the gorgeous arrangements seen all throughout Trouble, and the melodic and thematic cohesiveness of Beast. And yet, as is the case with all of The National’s albums, it’s entirely its own world. Despite being a capping off of this round of albums, I Am Easy To Find is quite possibly the most different sounding and overall ambitious album by the band. Although their career has been built on incremental change, with each album further building upon what came before, this LP steps away from the established design and structure of what The National are. It’s deliberately more collaborative, which enhances the thematic ties of the record, underlining the importance of outside help and inspiration. As an entire experience, the album is like a beautifully spun spiderweb of sounds and voices, complete with glowing streaks of color and buzzing bits of life moving inside it. If you look at it from a distance, it will stand out to you on its own. But when you inspect it closer, it has the potential to floor you. Thus far this year, no other album has inspired a journey I keep wanting to embed myself in so completely quite like I Am Easy To Find.
4.8 out of 5.
Stream I Am Easy To Find below, or purchase it here.