Is The National’s music boring? This question has dogged the band since its debut album, largely due to a combination of frontman Matt Berninger’s baritone and sometimes monotonous voice, subdued instrumentation and probing, gloomy, occasionally ambiguous lyrics. The band’s discography is critically acclaimed but much of it remains inaccessible to the average listener, who needs more than Berninger’s soulful mumbling about suburbia, love and the drags of life.
The band’s excellent 2013 release, “Trouble Will Find Me,” showed signs of providing this and disrupting the “boring theory,” with elements of pop and humor thrown into the mix. Their similarly brilliant 2017 album, “Sleep Well Beast,” was laced with electronics and featured especially poignant performances from Berninger — both unseen on previous efforts.
Orchestral arrangements, addictive riffs, needed guest performances, and thunderous performances by Berninger make the band’s eighth album, “I Am Easy To Find,” its most daring record to date, proving The National can make interesting music that appeals to a wider audience. The album explores failed, failing or fraught relationships, with the album’s title highlighting how rocky relationships can be held together by the fear of change and the familiarity of a long-term companion.
The addition of female voices is integral to the record’s success, turning its stories about inherently two-sided relationships into conversations instead of Berninger’s usual monologues. Stunning performances by Lisa Hannigan, Kate Stables, Mina Tindle, Sharon Van Etten, Eve Owens and especially Gail Ann Dorsey, who frequently collaborated with David Bowie, add layers to songs like “Hey Rosey” and “The Pull of You” that could have otherwise become tedious.
Their performances enhance the album’s best songs, creating a sense of vibrancy not found in Berninger’s vocals. Lead single “I Had My Soul With You” was already a stand-out, with an addictive stuttering beat, beautiful lyrics and a passionate performance by Berninger. Dorsey’s addition to the third verse altered the entire landscape of the song, keeping it interesting and adding to its abundance of energy and charisma. Berninger and Tindle strike up one of the most impactful conversations on the album with “Oblivions.” The song’s characters struggle with confidence in their marriage, wondering if the spark is still there or if the relationship has become one-sided. “You won’t walk away, won’t you,” they ask each other, hoping that the relationship can overcome the man’s self-destructive behavior. “Where Is Her Head” is wonderfully chaotic and frantic, featuring roaring instrumentals and powerful vocal performances from Eve Owens and guitarist Aaron Dessner that are laced over each other to create its unique sound.
In other ways, “I Am Easy To Find” pushes The National out of its comfort zone. The band experiments with elements of psychedelic and dream pop on “Underwater,” “Dust Swirls in Strange Light,” and parts of “So Far So Fast,” which all sound like they could be off of a Beach House album. The National also collaborated with indie film director Mike Mills to accompany the sprawling, 64-minute album with a 26-minute black and white short film of the same name.
Relying on immaculate cinematography, a score made up of the album’s most touching moments and an eye-opening performance by Alicia Vikander, this simplistic yet deeply emotional tearjerker may be as much of a revelation as the album itself. Vikander plays the unnamed protagonist from birth to death, masterfully capturing the nuances of each age without saying a word as she struggles with her distant mother growing up and a turbulent marriage as an adult. The film touches on many of the same themes as the album, as she finds herself going back to this husband whom she fights with constantly and may not even love because he is easy to find.
Both the album and film advance an alternative interpretation of the phrase, I am easy to find. “Surprised at how much others delude themselves / She wonders how much she deludes herself,” reads one of the film’s many short messages. Vikander’s character struggles to understand her identity, making the phrase a distant dream. She will never truly find herself. On “Rylan,” a fan favorite and staple of The National’s live shows that was originally recorded for “Trouble Will Find Me,” Berninger sings about an introverted kid named Rylan who struggles to find himself among a world of extroverts. “Quiet Light” looks at a different angle of this interpretation, following a protagonist who actually is finding himself again after a difficult breakup. “But I’m learning to lie here in the quiet light / While I watch the sky go from black to grey / Learning how not to die, inside a little every time ... / And I’m learning to live without the heartache it gives me,” sings Berninger. Even when finding yourself is possible, it certainly is not easy.
Until now, The National prioritized impassioned lyricism and storytelling over bold instrumentation and experimentation. The band was boring to the average listener, but interesting for those who listened closer. On “I Am Easy To Find,” The National embraces both, sounding anything but boring.
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