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Review: The National’s Multimedia Epic ‘I Am Easy to Find’

Indie-rock standard-bearers pivot to collectivist art-making with 70+ musicians and a host of women’s voices, to potent effect.

The National - Promo shoot for "I Am Easy To Find" Album, NYC, April 22nd 2019

Graham MacIndoe*

Necessity’s the mother of invention, and just as U.K. racism gave rise in the late 1970s to the activist, mixed-race Two Tone scene, so has #MeToo informed a new wave of indie-rock. For a culture that likes to fancy itself woke despite an ongoing tradition of sexism and sexual predation, it’s heartening to see not only a new generation of women and non-binary artists up front, but cis bros evidently rethinking their work and privilege in gender-mixed contexts. This year, Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers teamed up as Better Oblivion Community Center. Ezra Koenig unveiled Vampire Weekend 2.0 on Father of The Bride with vocal help from Danielle Haim (and bonus points for the metatextual sample of Jenny Lewis singing the word “boy.”) On I Am Easy to Find, another standard-bearing indie dude brand has reconfigured itself with multiple women’s voices at the LP’s core, a portion of the roughly 77 musicians that temporarily explode the band’s quintet. The album was also conceived of a piece with a luminously sad and lovely short film of the same name, directed with emotive minimalism by Mike Mills (20th Century Women), and starring Alicia Vikander, who pulls off a heartbreaking and quietly astonishing hat-trick by aging from cradle to grave in 26 minutes with no perceivable changes beyond movements and mannerisms.

Evidently, as the African proverb suggests, it takes a village. But this art mobbing isn’t out of character for The National, a band that’s spent much of their career snowballing community, through festival curation (Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, the Eaux Claires Festival), producing friends’ records (for a time at Aaron Dessner’s Brooklyn home studio), operating a label (Brassland), and marshaling outsized projects like a five-plus-hour Grateful Dead homage (Day of The Dead) and the ever-growing 37d03d (aka: PEOPLE) collective.

I Am Easy to Find is, however, the first time they’ve applied this approach to the band itself, and they pull it off without diluting their National-ness. It’s a balancing act. “You Had Your Soul With You” begins with a stuttering melody built of sample-shards and Matt Berninger’s signature baritone incantations, which outline a failed relationship. The third verse is sung by Gail Ann Dorsey, Berninger eventually joining her in rueful harmony. The lyrical and formal suggestion, explored throughout the record, seems to be that it takes two to tango, and despite the canyon that separates our perceptions, however gendered, we all share vast tracts of emotional territory, and are capable of deep empathy. Whether we act on it is another story.

Dorsey’s dusky contralto, once David Bowie’s foil, also melds with Berninger’s voice on “Roman Holiday” and “Hey Rosie.” Tracks featuring higher-register singers plumb different tensions. “Oblivions” begins with Berninger trading lines with French singer/songwriter (and Bryce Dessner’s wife) Mina Tindle, before their voices converge, with Tindle out front, singing about marriage and the fear it fails to erase (“It’s the way you say yes when I ask you to marry me/You don’ t know what you are doing/Do you think you can carry me/Over the threshold/Over and over again until oblivion?”). That Beninger hangs back in the mix is interesting, both because it’s ostensibly his show, and for how pop songs — in mixing and arrangements — have historically treated women’s voices as subservient to men’s, not unlike the way photographic technology favors Caucasian skin tones. Tonal balance and audio separation are small gestures, but they demonstrate the breadth of cultural sexisms that need dismantling.

The duet-centered songs are the strongest. In its poignant tick-tocking piano melody, the camera-shutter percussion, the bleep-blorp electronics, the brightly funereal brass, the elegant choral and string arrangements, the title track beautifully skeins almost every sonic byway the group’s been exploring lately. A Big Apple tale, Berninger sings about “towers,” lies, and the way city life can rip a union apart, with Kate Staples, of the idiosyncratic English folk-rock group This Is The Kit, matching nearly every word. “You never were much of a New Yorker
/ It wasn’t in your eyes,” the couple sing to one another, with equal parts accusation and resignation.

In a similar way, “The Pull of You” suggests the banter of arch, articulate, probably degreed lovers — New York Review of Books readers, in therapy, whose smarts, sensitivity and self-awareness can’t save them or their relationship. And “Not in Kansas” uses a list of the things we use to define ourselves — beloved music, movies, drugs — to pin its character like a butterfly:

Smidges of bad ecstasy
Must have left it in my pocket

With my Christianity and my rocket
I’m binging hard on Annette Bening
And listening to REM again

Begin The Begin over and over

It’s a tragicomic song, and Berninger sings it mostly alone, though one wonders how much of it was written by his life- and writing partner, Carin Besser, who co-wrote the set’s lyrics along with Berninger and Mike Mills. The loss in the song is palpable, as it is in “Light Years,” which ends the record in a swirl of strings and flashbacks, soft regret and acceptance — that faintly bitter taste that grows strangely appealing over time. Like the short movie, it doesn’t offer any morals or profound truths. Just beauty, and an invitation to savor it while you can.

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