After two decades, the ever-impressive Ohioans open their doors to allow a new perspective to take centre stage. The results are mixed but when they are good, they are rather great
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Eighteen years and seven albums in, The National were beginning to unwind. ‘Sleep Well Beast’ was set to be unleashed into the wild, an album that would bring them unanimous critical acclaim and cement their festival headline status. The tour that supported it would last under eighteen months and would see The National conquer the world, albeit pleasantly. Their march towards success has been patient and arduous, two terms many critics of the band would use against them. ‘Sleep Well Beast’ was a fitting conclusion for the Ohioans’ decade, as the title suggests. In a recent press release, the band confirmed ‘Beast’ was intended to bookend the 2010s. However Mike Mills had other ideas.
Just five days before ‘Sleep Well Beast’ was released, Matt Berninger – the band’s mainstay miserable PA system – received an email from Mills. This email propelled an album campaign unlike any other for the group. Mike Mills, director of Oscar-nominated ’20th Century Women’, pitched an idea to Berninger that would eventually form ‘I Am Easy To Find’ – a multimedia project that not only redefines The National but the fan’s engagement with The National. Both parties (The National and Mills) have interpreted their conversation and created two simultaneous, but not synergetic, products. Mills’ piece is a gorgeous 24-minute film starring Alicia Vikander, soundtracked by different arrangements of new songs from The National.
The band themselves have carved out what is their longest, most ambitious and sage album to date. Exhaustive but not overbearing, ‘I Am Easy To Find’ is The National at their most self-challenging. The concept album sees The National intentionally incorporating female voices into every song, expanding their already-voluminous sound to finesse new texture. It is a strategy unparalleled. The concept may seem pretentious or smug, but in the case of The National, it is logical and suitable. For twelve years, Carin Besser – wife to Matt Berninger – has been co-writing songs for the band. On ‘Sleep Well Beast’, hymnal female vocals swirled throughout, humanising their typically bleak numbers. ‘I Am Easy To Find’ succeeds because no other band could realistically, respectfully pull off an audacious move twenty years deep.
The new voices integrate seamlessly with the familiar. Legendary names like Gail Ann Dorsey steals the show on ‘You Had Your Soul With You’. Lisa Hannigan lends her dulcet vocal to the mesmirising cry of ‘The Pull of You’. The latter is a highlight; dating back to 2016, the song has been developed into a gradual explosion. Berninger gets his own spoken-word breakdown before unleashing an open-hearted roar in the chorus. While Hannigan silkily treads over the track, this is a perfect example of the brilliance of this collaboration. Hannigan’s approach is akin to Berninger, often quiet and restrained. Berninger has no option but to force himself into new ground. He does so in a haunting manner – the chorus is visceral, dark. “We all know this rain is hard to take”, he resigns.
‘Dust Swirls in Strange Light’, on the other hand, reflects the benefit of expansion on its collaborator. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus take over singing duties on this track – a forgettable filler moment that, while needless, remains charming. If the song is forgettable, this opportunity certainly will not have been for the young kids involved.
However, make no mistake, through all the filler lies some of The National’s strongest material. ‘Quiet Light’ – in all its four-minute splendour – is a glitchy, devastating song that could rival their best. Led by a typically directionless rhythm from Bryan Devendorf, it is Aaron Dessner’s striking piano chords that steers the song’s course. As Berninger enters the frame, his voice refuses to match the song’s structure: as if his discontent cannot be reflected in lyrics alone. Although he makes a solid case. “I used to fall asleep to you talking to me, I don’t listen to anything now”, he opens with. It does not get any easier. The chords are as powerful as ‘Fake Empire”s while the vocal textures signal strength in numbers. It is a summation of what makes The National so great.
Before long, Devendorf is on full cylinders. His drums receive an abnormal bruising on ‘Where Is Her Head’, the stadium-scale pop-rock anthem on the album. Mike Mills solely wrote the lyrics and it is Eve Owen whose turn it is to lead a song. Her wistful Lauren Mayberry-esque voice sprinkles a rare glimpse of ease on the album. Her’s is gentle, intentionally tender. The song, driven by the rhythm, never drifts from the path meaning its string-filled theatrical conclusion is deserved.
The National, despite their vulnerable and sincere songwriting approach, have always been a Boys Club. They are commonly known as the ‘indie dads’, but on ‘I Am Easy To Find’, they make a compelling case to become an indie family. Matt Berninger has always been the solo voice of the group, a group comprised of him and two sets of brothers. Instead of a brother to collaborate with (the Devendorf’s on rhythm and bass, the Dessner’s on guitars), Berninger collaborates with his wife, Carin Besser. They have worked on lyrics and songs for over a decade and so for Berninger to explore working with a flurry of new female voices does not just seem logical, it is enlightened.
These new voices have evidently motivated the previously-independent Berninger to improve his ever-stellar lyricism. Take ‘Not In Kansas’, for example. A near-seven-minute wander, it is Father John Misty after a shower. Multiple stanzas breeze by, each one establishing a maternal relationship stronger than the last. Berninger’s lyrics range from the deeply personal (“I wanted you when I was a child, I raked the leaves and I started fires, Now I’m reading whatever you give me, It’s half your fault so half-forgive me”) to the laughably relatable (“I’m binging hard on Annette Bening, I’m listening to R.E.M. again”). It is an exercise in The National’s willingness to experiment and they are clearly unafraid to take risks.
‘I Am Easy To Find’ does not possess nearly the same amount of cohesion or tonal consistency of ‘Sleep Well Beast’. ‘Hey Rosey’ drags in the same way Better Oblivion Community Center’s brilliant debut was stumped by the sluggish (and suitably titled) ‘Exception To The Rule’.
This album doesn’t position itself as a major studio album, but as a project that allows The National to challenge themselves. There is no greater example than ‘Rylan’. Dating as far back as 2010, it is a fan favourite; performed live scarcely, its legacy outshines many of the band’s mainstream hits. Fans have waited nearly a decade for a studio version, having heavily relied on amateur-recorded live performances.
Again, The National do not disappoint. The band utilise an established sure-fire smash and opt to apply their concept to breathe new life into it. The drums are as emphatic as one would hope for while synths pulsate in the background. As the chords enter the frame, the song’s wholesome energy is not just memorable, but familiar.
However there is an update. The song’s second verse is taken from the reigns of Berninger and passed up to Kate Stables (fka This Is The Kit). Her vocals are unsure, especially compared to that strong, unbreakable baritone. Her inclusion is necessary: not only does she give the song a fresh feel, the lyrics are more appropriate. Now Rylan is not just one character that Berninger knows, this is a character known to many.
None of the new names are featured artists; it is ‘The National’ credited on each song. The new female voices are as integral as anyone else. ‘I Am Easy To Find’ as a concept only works because The National have the belief to pull it off. The songs, at times, are a supplement – the use of these voices deservedly take priority. And while they full short on occasion, this is another solid entry for a band that has disproved many time and time again. At this point, this new formula is one The National would be foolish not to stick with.
‘I Am Easy To Find’ by The National is out now via 4AD