“Put me in your movie” Matt Berninger snarls on ‘Roman Holiday’. The National’s frontman is a notoriously slippery lyricist, but this simple line may be the most literal he has ever penned. The National’s eighth album I Am Easy to Find was developed in collaboration with director Mike Mills, who made a tear-jerking short film of the same name, scored by alternate versions of the tracks that make up the album.
The album itself sees the five core members of The National utilise a massive supporting cast – Mills himself is credited as a producer while Berninger’s distinctive baritone takes a step back as he shares vocal duties with a host of female singers – Gail Ann Dorsey, Kate Stables, Sharon Van Etten, Mina Tindle and Lisa Hannigan – as well as the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, who carry 3 shorter interlude tracks where The National’s iconic frontman is completely absent.
For hardcore fans of The National, this could be worrying news – The National are on one of indie’s longest hot-streaks – every record they have released since 2005’s Alligator has been consistently brilliant, evidence enough that Berninger, and the two sets of brothers that make up the band – Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf have found a more than winning formula – and inviting too many outsiders on board could disrupt this chemistry that the Cincinnati five-piece have built over their two-decade career.
If the film accompaniment and the addition of female vocals wasn’t enough change, I Am Easy to Find is also the longest record of the band’s career – clocking in at 64 minutes, making it easily The National’s most daring record. Thankfully, this record’s ambition is more than matched by its quality – largely thanks to Aaron Dessner’s wizardry in the production department – I Am Easy to Find is a beautifully textured record, perhaps evidenced best by the stunning piano at the core of Hairpin Turns as Berninger trades vocals with Gail Ann Dorsey.
Another defining trait of this new record is the presence of strings on various tracks – Aaron’s brother Bryce has a background in classical music and has finally been allowed to leave that stamp all over a National record with this one – as with everything on the record, the strings are gloriously rich-sounding and appear in different forms throughout – as merely a layer on the brilliant Oblivions, but at the end of ‘Quiet Light’ (one of The National’s best ever ballads), all other instrumentation drops out, leaving only Berninger and a thoroughly nightmarish score.
At the mention of ballads, it must be noted that they are the tracks that dominate this album – however the record is far from one-note – ‘The Pull of You’ is one of the most intense tracks the band has ever recorded, hearing Berninger go from a spoken-word segment on chocolate chip pancakes to a lung-bursting scream in a matter of moments. Fan-favourite ‘Rylan’, which the band have been playing live for almost 10 years also raises the tempo thanks to Bryan Devendorf’s frenetic drumming and the brilliance of Berninger’s lyricism throughout.
When discussing I Am Easy to Find however, the track that truly steals the show is ‘Not In Kansas’, a near 7-minute stream of consciousness spiel from Berninger, which may have felt self-indulgent on other National records but due to his sharing of vocal duties on this record, it’s impossible to begrudge him his moment, where he name-drops The Strokes and REM as well as talking about punching Nazis. He is twice punctuated by an angelic chorus of Dorsey, Hannigan and Stables, who sound as if they are providing the existential Berninger with divine intervention. “Time has come now to stop being human / time to find a new creature to be” they propose, knowing its impossibility – I Am Easy to Find is a record obsessed with what it means to be human, and is all the better for it.
[Andrew Barr – @weeandreww]
[Photo credit: 4AD]