By Rob Masiello
The National have never been a band to shy away from earnestness and sentimentality. But their previous seven albums were also peppered with moments of humor, self-deprecation, and even political musings. Those flourishes quickly vaulted the band to premier indie rock status, and generally safeguarded them from accusations of heavy-handedness. Now, 20 years into their career and approaching age 50, The National have stripped away the irony and dryness that once defined them. What remains is their most majestic and ambitious album to date, “I Am Easy to Find.”
“I Am Easy to Find” stands apart from its predecessors in several ways, most notably by having frontman Matt Berninger share lead vocals with several female artists across the album’s 16 tracks. This decision was met with some derision, particularly by those who see it as cloying for a band of middle-aged white men to hand the mic over to a woman in the #MeToo era. It’s perhaps an unfair accusation to level at The National, however, as Berninger’s wife Carin Besser (herself an acclaimed writer) has contributed to the group’s lyrics since their fourth album “Boxer.” In other words, The National’s songs have incorporated a feminine perspective since 2007. Viewed in that light, adding women’s voices to the songs seems less like a political act than a logical progression.
The roster of women contributing to the album includes Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, Kate Stables, and Mina Tindle. But perhaps none steal the show quite as remarkably as Gail Ann Dorsey, a longtime member of David Bowie’s band. Dorsey’s stately vocal performances perfectly complement Berninger’s gravelly baritone, and she delivers her words with poise and intent. Her warm delivery lends complexity to lines like “I will love you like there’s razors in it,” and the result somehow sounds as reassuring as it is threatening. You’re not sure if you should be running towards her or away from her.
While the somber mood hasn’t changed much from The National’s recent output, their sound now is more colorful than ever. Credit the aforementioned vocalists, as well as the addition of 13 violinists, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and two ambient interludes. This may seem like overkill for a band that was already prone to theatrics, but every song is so carefully composed, it’s hard to find fault with their approach. “Quiet Light” is the band’s best awake-at-3-a.m. mid-tempo rocker yet, and “Hairpin Turns” navigates a collapsing relationship with the grace and empathy that The National are now known for.
If this all sounds a bit familiar, it’s because “I Am Easy to Find” is very much a The National album. It does deal with all the same middle-aged, middle-class anxieties that the band has always tackled, but lacks the sarcastic edge of their earlier work. A look back at their 2010 album “High Violet” highlights this discrepancy. On the song “Lemonworld,” Berninger played the role of privileged, effete snob, scoffing about his “cousins somewhere overseas / but it’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me.” Then on the concluding “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” he lambasts that same persona with a cutting couplet: “hanging from chandeliers / same small world at your heels.”
While that level of narrative complexity might be missing from “I Am Easy to Find,” it’s exchanged for unadulterated emotion. The seven-minute lullaby “Not in Kansas” drifts like a dream sequence, ruminating on everything from childhood’s end, to the crisis at our country’s border, to ecological collapse. Like the album at large, it’s weighty, tangential, a bit clumsy, and close to perfect. In The National’s world, everything exists in constant flux. Love is threatening to fade away, but not without the promise that “I will say your name out loud and you will be home.” Mistakes are only “half-forgiven,” but sometimes that’s the best we can hope for.
“I Am Easy to Find” ends with a sigh, the plaintive, piano-led “Light Years.” It’s the most classically beautiful song they’ve recorded, and is accompanied by an equally-devastating music video directed by Mike Mills. In the song’s final moments, Berninger laments, “I would always be light years away from you.” It’s a stark reminder that—despite our assurances and half-hearted efforts, despite being easy to find—the moments and people we long for might remain just out of reach.