May 17, 2019 The National – I Am Easy to Find (Album Review)
Multi-layered Rock Band The National return with I Am Easy to Find, their eighth full-length album, on May 17th, 2019 through 4AD.
Formed around two decades ago in Cincinanti, Ohio, this unique band features a broad collection of musicians, each with several hats to wear; Aaron Dessner on guitar and piano, Scott Devendorf on bass and guitar, Scott’s brother Bryan Devendorf on drums and percussion, Bryce Dessner, twin to Aaron, on guitar and keyboards, all ably backing Matt Berninger on lead vocals. As the band grew, so too did each of their roles and locations, and at times in their history, records were written, tracked, and recorded all across the United States and the world, with Berninger and Aaron writing the majority of the songs and Aaron assembling and producing the final result in his Upstate New York studio.
That in mind, with I Am Easy to Find, the band has entered a new realm; written almost entirely in each other’s presence, on the road as well as in hotel rooms, and in parallel with a short film of the same name directed by Mike Mills. The band and director did their best not to influence each other’s direction—the album is neither a soundtrack nor a basis for the movie—but Aaron did realize having a strong female lead (played by Alicia Vikander) meant the album should have a strong collection of female voices. This is evident with Gail Ann Dorsey, best known for her work with David Bowie, who adds some moxie to the chorus of opener “You Had Your Soul With You.” Featuring her subtly powerful voice for a larger impact on several following tracks, later, the title-track is a soft, placid duet with Kate Stables, the enigmatic British vocalist who first worked with the Dessner brothers about when recording her 2015 album, Bashed Out.
Then there is “Rylan,” named after its sheltered, unassuming title character that has been floating around in the band’s catalog since the early 2010s. As Berninger told NME last year, “We don’t do that thing where we don’t talk to each other for months anymore.” Instead, the band focused on making the most of their down time together, in terms of minutes, hours or days, on tour or otherwise, putting as much music to tape as possible while with each other.
The National can best be described as five equal parts, augmented by a crowd of guest musicians with each passing album. That said, the most recognizable aspect of the band is still reluctant Vocalist Berninger. His gruff mixture of Mark Knopfler and Tom Waits, spoken with the tortured cadence of Mark Lanegan, carries each of these tunes. Whether on “Not in Kansas,” where he alternates takes with the chorus of Gail Ann Dorsey, Kate Stables, and Lisa Hannigan, or the haunting title-track, where he and Stables take turns as if in a proper duet.
The colorful near-mumble of Berninger is at its apex on “Quiet Light” – save for the final verse, where the instrumentation largely takes a backseat, his vocals are largely out of time (and nearly out of tune) with the rest of the band, and both are stronger for it. Although, his absence is just as chilling, either on “So Far So Last,” where his voice waits until almost halfway through the track before swooping in and taking the center role, or on tracks such as “Dust Swirls In Strange Light” as well as “Her Father in the Pool,” where he does not appear at all.
Additionally, the album’s third single, “Hairpin Turns,” features a new combination of guests – French Vocalist Mina Tindle is joined by Dorsey, Hannigan, and Stables, and the accompanying music video shows the band scattered around an open room, with Sharon Eyal dancing in the empty spaces left between them. This is while “Roman Holiday” puts the vocals of Berninger and Dorsey at the forefront as the breathless pause each employs before singing the last syllable of the title is as frustrating as it is alluring.
With I Am Easy to Find, The National nourish further their penchant for minimalism. As such, they may lose as many fans as they gain, and those who stay, with an open mind, will find their faith rewarded with strong tracks like “Hairpin Turns” and “Not in Kansas,” as well as the title-track. That is why Cryptic Rock gives I Am Easy to Find 4 out of 5 stars.