The National’s ‘I Am Easy To Find’ Captures Life in All Its Triumph and Tragedy
Indie rock stalwarts The National have taken a bold art house detour with their latest project, “I Am Easy To Find,” an album released in tandem with a short film by director Mike Mills. A series of snapshots fitted to the band’s songs aims to capture an inside look into no less ambitious a subject than the experience of life, from birth to death. Naturally, a project of such scale sets a high bar, and the results are occasionally resplendent. In fitting with the female protagonist of the film, the band has recruited a cast of female vocalists who share the mic with singer Matt Berninger in a dynamic showcase that realizes latent proclivities and hints at fascinating new directions.
“You Had Your Soul With You” begins with jarring bits of clipped audio, and develops into an ornate arrangement replete with strings and all the works. The tension between the busy, frenetic bits and the sustained, relaxed portions effectively echoes the central lyric: “You had your soul with you, I was in no mood.” In the context of the accompanying film, it evokes the likes of flighty spirits and missed connections, although quite liberally open-ended. “Quiet Light” settles neatly into the emergent mood, with plaintive piano, atmospheric trickling, and a strikingly tired voice, with Berninger exhaustedly going through the motions, as the female backing voice chimes in. This is one of the songs that most encapsulates the film, in its dragging evocation of uncertain wandering and drudgery, as in the lyrics “While I watch the sky go from black to grey / Learning how not to die, inside a little every time.”
The film focuses largely on moments of self-realization, coupled with snapshots of attempts to find a mirror in others. “Roman Holiday” captures the idea in the lines “She said, ‘Please, think the best of him / Please, think the best of me,’” delivered in male and female voices both slightly quivering. This emotion falls into focus on the ensuing track “Oblivions,” on which Berninger and Mina Tindle sing “I still got my fear,” as if exalting some badge of honor. If any feeling is consistent throughout the film, it’s insecurity, and “fear” functions very much as a stamp of one’s human fragility, the only means by which one can really make sense of the world.
“The Pull of You” is an emotive standout. While many of the album’s songs seem to flow on conceit, this one strikes as particularly substantive and effectively resonant. The female voice here is Lisa Hannigan, whose especially tender timbre contrasts with Berninger’s rasp to poignant ends. In an album with plenty dismal and dreary ideas, this song also has a particularly sweet moment in the line “We’re connected by a thread,” delivered in dedicated concert. The lush and robust “Hey Rosey” builds on this feeling, At this point, it’s worth noting that the National has gone to great lengths to select female voices of great variety, to the effect that listeners will find themselves constantly recalibrating. Gail Ann Dorsey, the singer on this track, has a certain, say, formality to her singing which is worlds away from some of the other singers.
The title track comes as the final realization of something long building, and rings as a final triumph. It raises questions about how much of one’s identity remains constant and immutable even through all life’s progress, as hinted in the title, and in the line, “I’m still standing in the same place where you left me standing.” Singer Kate Stables dominates in the mix, while Berninger’s hushed backing seems to just nudge the thoughts forward. The song has quirky synth touches that sound as if pulled directly from Thom Yorke’s album “The Eraser,” and they couldn’t be better placed.
The provocatively titled “Her Father In the Pool” sustains the energy of the titular track’s climax with a cloudy haze of choral voicings lasting just over a minute, forcing the listener to pause for a moment and let it all register. Then comes another standout, “Where Is Her Head,” a frenzied, percussion-heavy track with breathy, serene female vocals placed alongside fraught, scattered male utterances, immediately conveying the uncertainty that makes its way into a litany of questions, such as “Where are her hands? / Where are her eyes?” The attempt at an answer is summed up in “Not In Kansas,” which finds long lingering thoughts taking a soft focus, with Berninger’s voice coming to prominence after a lengthy relative hiatus. A striking bit in a generally apolitical album comes in “Ohio’s in a downward spiral / Can’t go back there anymore / Since alt-right opium went viral.” The song ends with a choir of female voices making such bold statements as “Time has come now to stop being human.”
“So Far So Fast” centers on a core concept of the film — actress Alicia Vikander stays in her present age throughout the course of the movie, as captions alert us that she is growing from an infant to an adult. It raises questions about how much of one’s identity is fixed, and how much is subject to time. There’s a sudden left turn with “Dust Swirls In Strange Light,” an outlandish, fantastical piece recalling the likes of “The Dreaming”-era Kate Bush. “Hairpin Turns” matches droning bass tones to intricate piano figures, and an intentionally shoddy vocal overlay, with Berninger seemingly struggling to come to terms with himself, singing, “I like the old way, I thought I was hanging in there.” On “Rylan,” his sonorous voice, left at second stage for much of the album, takes focus and rings in a welcome return to the National’s signature sound. This gives way to a surreal, atmospheric instrumental “Underwater,” and a final elusive afterthought in “Light Years,” in which Berninger reflectively concludes, “And I would always be light years, light years away from you.”
Listeners beyond dedicated devotees of the band might find that project seems to be a bit heavy-handed. The film often strikes as a collection of open-ended cliches posing as conceptual high art. Fortunately, the richness of the abstruse lyrics nearly compensates for this, providing plenty of food for thought, and making for a compelling statement altogether. It certainly showcases the National pursuing new, exciting directions, to often interesting ends.
“I Am Easy To Find” is available May 17 on Apple Music.