The National’s I Am Easy to Find Has a Beauty Worth Uncovering
Initially, the National’s I Am Easy to Find feels like the band’s dull middlebrow fuckup, twelve years after Matt Berninger muttered that about himself on “Squalor Victoria”. Sixty-three minutes of electronic ballads with a 24-minute black-and-white short film attached sounds uncharacteristically pretentious for a band that once kept its records at manageable lengths and its avant-garde indulgences limited to various non-album extracurriculars. I Am Easy to Find began as a collection of outtakes from 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, cobbling them together into a project that even the press release calls “ungainly.” At first glance, it definitely sounds like a record of outtakes, even if the band’s b-sides are good in their own right. With its somnambulant pacing and few immediate standouts, the album may test hardcore fans’ loyalty and casual fans’ patience, locking out newcomers altogether.
But what first makes the record baffling is also what makes it fascinating, as the band toes the line between experimentation and self-sabotage. They wring maximum potential from bizarre ideas like the choir-led zone-out “Dust Swirls in Strange Light,” while axing what would seem like surefire winning moments, like a disco-inflected coda that closed early versions of “Quiet Light.” The National are a famously fastidious band, and it’s thrilling to hear them indulging in sounds that could be perceived as mistakes. Generally, the music is better the weirder it gets: the spoken word on standout “The Pull of You,” the glitch effects applied to an otherwise standard Dessner guitar line on opener “You Had Your Soul With You.” The biggest risk, and payoff, is Matt Berninger ceding control to female singers on several tracks; Lisa Hannigan and Gail Ann Dorsey in particular have the ability to dip into Berninger’s vocal range, and their performances on “So Far So Fast” and “Hey Rosey” lend credibility to the ‘fabric of people’s identities’ that Berninger has said he wanted to evoke with the large cast of vocalists.
Not all of the experiments work. The unassuming tightness of the National’s best work is a distant memory on the 7-minute ostensible centerpiece “Not in Kansas.” This aimless, Kozelek-ian treatise includes conflicted half-formed musings on gender fluidity, tangential analogies about The Godfather and the Strokes, and the occasional maddening aside like one documenting “Ohio’s… downward spiral” when “alt-right opium went viral.” “Not In Kansas” risks smarminess even at its best, but the angelic refrain contextualizes, even redeems the otherwise frustratingly free-associative lyrics. On a previous record, interpolating a song named for Prohibition might have been a cheeky reference to Berninger’s long-documented love of alcohol. But after six minutes of detailing modern society’s chaos, “time to find a new creature to be… for the earth has grown tired and all of your time has expired” can only be taken at face value, a harrowingly sincere surrender to nihilism.
I Am Easy to Find’s accompanying film of the same name, from Beginners director Mike Mills, ties together the light and dark of the record. It features songs from the album pulled apart and remixed, often atonally rubbing against one another. Alicia Vikander plays an unnamed woman who goes through the motions of a middle-class life, getting a job (we don’t know her job), having a kid (we don’t know his name either), and—since this is a National album—watching everyone she loves die off until she does, too. The band’s music often concerns itself with finding meaning in going through the motions, so the voyeuristic tone, never privy to Vikander’s internal conflict, is appropriate.
The short film is challenging, but seeing and understanding it heightens the experience of the album itself. The best example is “Where Is Her Head,” a five-minute hook collage more manic than depressive. Lead by Eve Owen (Clive’s daughter), “Where Is Her Head” takes its lyrics from a story book seen early in the film. It contrasts deliberately childlike mantras (“Where are her eyes / Where are her feet?”) with classic fatalistic Berningerisms (“I think I’m hitting a wall / I hate my looks/I hate them all”)—a tension that’s as inspired as anything the band has done. “Hairpin Turns” earns its spot in the dysfunctional National ballad pantheon, but the visual component to its chorus (“we’re always arguing about the same things”) makes the song more visceral. The aforementioned “Quiet Light” outro might have been cut from the album, but it appears throughout the film to stunning effect.
“Rylan,” a fan favorite since a stray performance on Q in 2011, finally makes an album appearance at the end of I Am Easy to Find—a crowd-pleasing inverse to the record’s more difficult stretches. Berninger’s narrator is uncommonly empathetic, telling the titular recluse “if you want to be alone, come with me… you should try to get some sun.” Many of Berninger’s lyrics deal with repressing emotions, but the underlying vulnerability, the need for connection, also drives people to the National in the first place. If the fear that comes with opening up makes the betrayals hit harder, it also makes communal moments like “Rylan” more triumphant. On the outro, the band and its myriad guests all chant, “there’s a little bit of hell in everyone,” which may well be the National’s thesis statement. Crafted as a tribute to fans that pushed for the song all decade, “Rylan” is an unqualified success at the end of their most potentially alienating album.
I Am Easy To Find is eventually another great National record, but “eventually” is exactly the issue. As beautiful as the album, and especially the short film, often are, there’s just too much work involved for anyone but the most patient and tolerant of fans. Between the two interludes and “Not In Kansas,” the length too often feels more self-indulgent than rewarding. The National stand virtually alone In their corner of intelligent, melancholic indie rock, and this record will be functional for those seeking a particular kind of solace. Anything beyond that purpose takes time to reveal, but it’s still there. Mike Mills said of the title: “I like how it’s sort of a lie. No one is easy to find.” Matt Berninger added “[but] you can be found—that’s why we’re not alone.” Only the National could make their most impenetrable project to date their most human as well.