Published on June 4th, 2019 | by Noah Dimitrie0
The National – I Am Easy to Find
The National’s new, ‘I Am Easy to Find’ is both music and a cinematic artwork that’s concise without being overwrought and evocative without being blunt.
Full disclosure: The National are one of my favorite bands. They have been since I was an angsty teenager and discovered that the walk home from school each afternoon was best accompanied by the soused, baritone crooning of Matt Berninger and his band of melancholy misfits. I love their brand of middle-aged existentialism; I love how every song kind of sounds the same. Even at The National’s most predictable, I still love to revel in the self-indulgence of being a fan, bathing in that gloriously plodding, morose aesthetic.
‘Sleep Well Beast,’ their Grammy-Award winning LP from 2017 hinted at a self-conscious evolution from the band, with a production style that committed to a moody, atmospheric conceit—showing more than telling, I suppose you could say. And while it was probably their most impactful collection of songs in quite some time, if the band was truly longing to transform, to answer their critics with a bold statement, they struggled to break their trademark, sad-boy mold. Yet, for die-hard fans like me, of which the band had amassed many, baby-steps felt like leaps.
So when I hit play on their new album (quaintly titled ‘I Am Easy to Find’) having purposely avoided the singles like they were plot spoilers, I found it a difficult experience. The music was far from bad; in fact, it was absolutely beautiful. However, I was stunned beyond any surface-level enjoyment upon first listen. What I heard was a band that I previously had seen as written into a corner and doomed to succeed only through the mold they stumbled upon 15 years ago, pushing themselves to an unrecognizable limit. ‘I Am Easy to Find’ is a breathtaking, though admittedly opaque record that makes it the most ambitious and identity-fraying albums, not only in the band’s discography, but in the annals of this decade’s oft-schizophrenic understanding of rock music.
Opening with ‘You Had Your Soul with You,’ the band makes it perfectly clear from its first catchy hook that the old National, especially as signified by Berninger’s iconic, loner vibe, is gone and somewhat forgotten. The album embraces unique female voices on almost all of its 16 tracks, transforming the vantage point of its heart-rending tunes. In an age in which the conventional, white, male indie rock band is still the norm, The National spit in the face of the notion that they have no say in that. Each song incorporates a stand-out female voice and harmonizes them with Berninger’s to create layered duets with depth. Enormous talents such as Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten, Eve Owen, Mina Tindle, and Kate Stables all make appearances on the record.
But this stylistic addition is not just shoehorned in merely for the sake of surface-level diversity. The mixture of perspectives, along with the way the distinctively male and female voices coalesce, bears a great thematic relevance. As The National have matured, the subject matter of their songs have as well, and lately Berninger finds himself talking about marriage, family, responsibility, often in the face of great depression. All those aspects remain on ‘I Am Easy to Find,’ but are reborn in a way that recontextualizes the band’s mission statement. The confluence of voices and perspectives often tells a story in and of itself; they merge with one another, invoking holy matrimony and giving the impression of cathartic dissonance between two immovable forces of nature, both tied to their unique standpoints. This is most powerful on tracks like ‘Oblivions,’ ‘Where is Her Head,’ and ‘So Far So Fast,’ in which not only the vocals, but the whole formal approach to their song writing takes a left turn into unexplored territory.
The remarkable confidence bursting from this album is equally evident on their sister project, the Mike Mills-directed short film also titled ‘I Am Easy to Find.’ While disguised as a promotional product, a long-form music video, the film actually stands on its own brilliantly. It constructs a narrative—equally as opaque as its album counterpart—telling the story of a woman, played by Alicia Vikander, as she navigates life from birth to death. Photographed in lush, but appropriate black-and-white, Vikander plays the character in all stages of life, perfectly pantomiming the soft, simple wants and needs of a child as well as the simultaneously joyous and exhausting experience of adulthood. She knocks it out of the park with overwhelming gravitas.
Though barely uttering a word, (the film is wrapped in segments from The National’s LP almost exclusively) Mills’ taut pacing and clever, symbolic mise-en-scene complements her physicality perfectly. As a companion to an album, the film serves as so much more than an extended music video. Though it embraces aspects of that style of filmmaking, it has something greater on its mind, a lifetime of beauty succinctly and emotionally distilled to its basic but most gripping elements. I’ll admit, I cried for almost its entire, 26-minute runtime.
Considering what The National have up their sleeves with their daring and re-defining collection of diverse and atmospheric tracks, the film echoes a philosophy that the music triumphantly re-affirms. ‘I Am Easy to Find’ as both a piece of music and a cinematic artwork is concise without being overwrought and evocative without being blunt. A tall task for any band, but for The National it feels absolutely pitch perfect. Even on more conventional-sounding tracks like ‘Rylan’ and ‘Light Years,’ the band packs a hefty punch, if anything because they are so well-contextualized within the outside-the-box thinking that makes the album shine. Listening to the album first will make the experience of watching the film so much greater, yet watching the film first I imagine will coat your perception of the album with a greater depth and imagination.
Either way, The National can’t really lose. They have crafted such a heavily collaborative film/album experience that it feels wrong to credit them above other creative forces. But for a band like them to spearhead a project like this requires a great amount of humility and self-awareness. And though I will be the first to admit that as a big fan, it did not strike me immediately as their most infectious or entertaining, ‘I Am Easy to Find’ is a glorious and deeply emotional precedent that has now been set for other indie rock bands to follow. It’s definitely a grower more than a show-er. Yet, as I write this, I cannot help but feel that the whole gestalt of what they have achieved has embedded itself deeply under my skin. I believe that trumps surface-level entertainment value.