The National takes a deep breath on the revelatory I Am Easy To Find

The National takes a deep breath on the revelatory I Am Easy To Find
Photo: Graham MacIndoe

“I can’t slow down and I can’t stand it.” A tidy summation of I Am Easy To Find, that, but also an encapsulation of our hyper, oversaturated thoughts. Tweets. News. Content. Comments. Posts. Bots. Tweets. We are consumed, swept in the current. Matt Berninger gets it, perhaps better than most. His lyrics have always illustrated the peripatetic mind, leaping from humor to heartache across a sea of unmoored, conversational patter. Such is true of “Not In Kansas,” the anxious, seven-minute centerpiece of The National’s lovely eighth LP—until it’s not.

The A.V. Club spoke of Berninger’s penchant for the “one-sided conversation” in our review of 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, but something’s changed. The National is listening now. Singers like Gail Ann Dorsey, Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, and This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables, among others, sprawl across these 16 tracks. Sometimes they spar with Berninger, sometimes they haunt him, and sometimes, as on “Not In Kansas,” they throw him a life raft. Because just when it seems as if he’ll drown in his wandering observations—unstuck in time, references to The Godfather, R.E.M., and Annette Bening unspool against a spare, roundabout guitar line—a chorus of voices descends like angels from a UFO. “If the sadness of life makes you tired / And the failures of man make you sigh,” they call, “You can look to the time soon arriving / When this noble experiment winds down and calls it a day.” It’s a riff on Thinking Fellers Union Local 282’s “Noble Experiment,” but it’s also illustrative of the album’s grander strive toward rest and, perhaps more importantly, reflection in a chaotic world.

Because Berninger is exhausted. That much is clear. “I’m just so tired of thinking about everything,” he sings on “Quiet Light,” a bright, heartsick track that’s as much about embracing silence as it is learning how to live with the painful memories that accompany it. As in the Mike Mills short film that accompanies the album, the fog of memory is a cloud that hangs over every word, and the power in both pieces—they are very much individual works of art—comes from their fluid portrayal of how we relate to that which has come before, whether it be an old friend, a traumatic event, or a bygone sense of self. “Something is leaving me behind,” Berninger mourns on standout “The Pull Of You,” his anxiety manifesting in the monologue of his female counterpart, a symbol of living, morphing memory.

That variety of perspective is integral here. I Am Easy To Find’s best songs—“Oblivions” and “Where Is Her Head,” in addition to “The Pull Of You”—feel like conversations, and the layered, thorny results offer a texture and tension that provides a much-needed jolt to The National’s oeuvre. That’s not to say the band’s output was getting stale—we loved the stormy, glitchy Sleep Well Beast—but the collaborative elements here feel even more of a piece with the ever-exploratory nature of instrumental mastermind Aaron Dessner, who’s spent the last few years experimenting with the artistic collective PEOPLE and its offspring, Big Red Machine.

The National treats its guests like members of the band—as on opener “You Had Your Soul With You,” when their vocals often eclipse Berninger’s—the rousing catharsis of its best work still roars in muscular tracks like “Rylan” and “Where Is Her Head,” both of which strike spirited climaxes on par with beloved cuts like “Sea Of Love” and “All The Wine.” The best moments, though, are perhaps the most understated: the thrumming, sepia-toned “So Far So Fast” is as inspiring as it is existential, while the overcast electronica of the title track finds Dessner painstakingly layering drums and horns over a penetrating base of chirping birds and buzz-sawing synths. The National’s never been afraid to dial things down, but it’s rarely sounded as vulnerable as it does here—song after song, Dessner’s vibrant, moody arrangements serve to reflect Berninger’s precarious balance of hope and frustration.

Distance has long been a theme of The National—as in Cherry Tree’s gutting “About Today”—but here the band’s illustration of it comes with a stealthy bit of optimism. Just as we grow apart from others, we grow apart from ourselves, the overwhelming tide of disappointment and industry distancing us from what we might see as a purer version of ourselves. Although many of I Am Easy To Find’s songs feel romantic in nature, it’s easy to read them as conversations between Berninger and life’s lost intangibles. “I’m still standing in the same place where you left me standing,” goes the title track. “I am easy to find.” That lyric rings out in the closing track, “Light Years,” when Berninger sings about how “you were waiting outside for me in the sun.” But still, he says, “you could’ve been right there next to me, and I’d have never known.” The things we’ve lost, the identity we hope to reclaim—they remain both near and far. And, welcoming as it might seem that our souls are waiting for us in the silence, there’s nevertheless an undercurrent of unease to it all—“I am easy to find” could, depending on your perspective, be read as a quiet threat.

That reading is bolstered by Mills’ accompanying film, which finds Alicia Vikander sighing through snapshots of a full life, from birth to death. Each event—often framed through simple blocks of text and one indelible image—instantly becomes a memory, the likes of which burn, fade, and burn again with time. “Don’t you know someday someone will come and find you,” sings the narrator of “So Far So Fast.” “If you don’t know who you are anymore, they’ll remind you.” Who that someone is remains unspoken on I Am Easy To Find, but, as the film illustrates, it’s probably many people. It’s probably time. And, no, we can’t slow it down, but we can stop. We can look around. We can rest.

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