In early 2013, I was interning at a recording studio in upstate New York where the Nationalâ€™s Aaron and Bryce Dessner were working on overdubs for the bandâ€™s sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, which was released later that year. As playback of the lovely â€śI Need My Girlâ€ť filled the control room, one of the brothers remarked, somewhat shockingly, that the Nationalâ€™s frontman, Matt Berninger, isnâ€™t a great singer.
Berningerâ€™s thick, apollonian baritone is one of the most distinctive voices in indie rock, and he wields it like a weapon, lending immense gravitas to everything he sings. He doesnâ€™t have much range as a vocalistâ€”in terms of both emotion and literal notesâ€”endowing a certain level of sameness to the Dessnersâ€™ compositions. But he and the rest of the band have managed to parlay that limitation into a consistent, often brilliant 20-year career. Nonetheless, itâ€™s reason enough to approach their eighth album, I Am Easy to Find, with skepticism that 16 tracks and over an hour of running time might be a bit too much Berninger for one sitting.
The first half of the albumâ€™s opening track, â€śYou Had Your Soul with You,â€ť boasts the same type of deconstructed post-guitar rock that the National has been making for a while now, with glitchy electronics, a lurching drum pattern, and Berninger intoning about loss and failure. But after the building instrumentation fades away into lush piano and strings, the first voice we hear isnâ€™t Berningerâ€™s, but that of Gail Ann Dorsey, longtime bassist and vocalist for the late David Bowie. When she sings, â€śYou have no idea how hard I died when you left,â€ť her steely but buoyant delivery offers an emotional shade to this brooding line that Berninger never could have achieved. Itâ€™s this moment that defines the rest of I Am Easy to Find, as Dorsey is one of various women who share the mic with Berninger over the course the album. The result is the Nationalâ€™s widest-ranging and most surprising effort to date.
Dorsey, Sharon Van Etten, This Is the Kitâ€™s Kate Stables, among others, arenâ€™t just some form of affirmative action for a band thatâ€™s sometimes derided as the epitome of self-absorbed straight-white-guy rock. The main impetus for their presence on I Am Easy to Find was, in fact, a short film of the same name directed by Mike Mills, and the bandâ€™s desire to more directly reflect the filmâ€™s female protagonist, played by Alicia Vikander. Besides, Berninger has often collaborated with his wife, writer and former New Yorker fiction editor Carin Besser, on lyrics for the National, so having female voices sing those lyrics is just a more explicit acknowledgement of how Besserâ€™s perspective has shaped the bandâ€™s lyrical identity.
Still, the effect of those voices spotlights the nuances of the Dessnersâ€™ compositional craft. From the stately piano balladry of â€śRoman Holidayâ€ť and â€śLight Yearsâ€ť to the more propulsive â€śRylanâ€ť and â€śThe Pull of You,â€ť even seemingly standard-issue National songs are made rewarding by the guest singersâ€™ eye-opening interpretations. Best of all, they occasionally empower the band to do something completely new, most notably on the stunningly beautiful title track, with its male-female harmonizing and atypically delicate vocal cadences. Itâ€™s one of the most uncharacteristic, and finest, songs the National has recorded to date.
The preponderance of other voices on I Am Easy to Find is such that Berninger is at times reduced to little more than a bit player in his own band, as on the swirling, blustery â€śWhere Is Her Headâ€ť and the slow-building â€śSo Far, So Fast,â€ť a showcase for French singer Mina Tindle. On the occasions when he does wrest the spotlight entirely for himself, even the greatest indulgence he can musterâ€”â€śNot in Kansas,â€ť a seven-minute ballad composed of stream-of-consciousness musingsâ€”utterly charms and never becomes overbearing.
Of the many singers featured on I Am Easy to Find, the ones who leave the greatest impression are the members of the Brooklyn Youth Choir, who make multiple appearances throughout the album. Their presence, including on the wordless interludes â€śHer Father in the Poolâ€ť and â€śUnderwater,â€ť is ethereal and indelible, miles away from the bandâ€™s usual, insular timbre.
Considering how many of the songs on I Am Easy to Find are leftoversâ€”mostly from the sessions for 2017â€™s Sleep Well Beast, though â€śRylanâ€ť dates back as far as 2010â€”itâ€™s remarkable how much of a piece it feels. That said, one does eventually feel the albumâ€™s length, with the stretch of songs in between â€śYou Left Your Soul with Youâ€ť and â€śI Am Easy to Findâ€ť feeling comparatively pedestrianâ€”the sounds of a band treading more familiar ground before really staring to take chances. But once they do, the sprawl quickly begins to justify itself, revealing some of the most ambitious music the National has ever made.
Label: 4AD Release Date: May 17, 2019 Buy: Amazon