Thursday, May 23, 2019

album review: 'i am easy to find' by the national

You know, when a band you really love is on a hot streak, you do feel a little nervous before opening up any new album, with the high hopes they'll continue it but the niggling feeling in your gut they're going to slip up. And that possibility of the slip-up does have more weight in terms of expectations than I'd like to admit, because it can blow a big hole in how much you might care about a new project, especially if it hasn't quite received the avalanche of critical acclaim the band might have used to get.

And can you tell I'm talking about The National here? But let's back up, because after 2013's potent Trouble Will Find Me, I've noticed my opinions on the indie rock veterans tend to diverge from the popular consensus, from my passionate love of frontman Matt Berninger's side project EL VY and its release Return To The Moon in 2015, to my much more lukewarm at best reception to the band's 2017 release Sleep Well Beast, which took philosophically questionable ideas and married them to underwhelming production compromised in groove and overall tone. To me it stood as their worst album to date, but being in the minority of that opinion, I had no earthly clue if The National would double down on those tones and get even worse, or whether they'd pull a sharp face turn and recover... and frankly, I wasn't sure I was all that enthused to hear them fumble a response, especially given how ponderous their albums could be. But hey, who knows, maybe divorced from some of the questionable political reaction that contorted too many albums in 2017, this would be a return to form, so how was I Am Easy To Find?

Well, if you're expecting a lengthy diatribe similar to the one I delivered for Sleep Well Beast, I'm not sure you're not really going to get that, mostly because I Am Easy To Find feels like a bit of an outlier when it comes to albums from The National. Their longest and easily most sprawling project to date, tonally it seems to continue some of the same experimentation of their last project, but that's because there are songs that are literally leftovers from it, as well as tunes that seem explicitly positioned to fit into the accompanying film, which the band has said is not essential to view in context with the album. But it makes parsing through I Am Easy To Find paradoxically quite difficult, as it can't help but feel like the defining features that once made The National so consistent for over a decade are more diffuse than ever. Now thankfully they are balanced in a way that's much more consistent, which makes I Am Easy To Find a better project than Sleep Well Beast... although if you're expecting it to rise to the level of Boxer or Trouble Will Find Me or the EL VY side project, you might be a little disappointed.

And the first major choice is that Matt Berninger, normally the omnipresent angst that can either be the greatest selling point or most exasperating part of any National album, did two important things. Firstly, he ditched most of his uncomfortable upper register for his mid-range and baritone that has always carried the most gravitas - which wins points from me off of Sleep Well Beast almost automatically - but more importantly, he actually took a step back here, as nearly every song has a woman singing opposite him spanning from Sharon Van Etten to Lisa Hannigan to even David Bowie's legendary back-up singer Gail Ann Dorsey. And while Berninger has had mixed results with duets before - I'm still irked that when he teamed up with Annie Clark for a cover of 'Sleep All Summer' it turned out as badly as it did - I'm actually quite pleased with his choice here, moving away from aspirations towards Nick Cave or the late Leonard Cohen where he would monopolize the spotlight, and instead understand how a varied perspective would add good complexity to the songs. And hell, between Gail Ann Dorsey's throaty alto that sounds absolutely incredible on 'You Had Your Soul With You' and 'Hey Rosey' and especially Mina Tindle's exceptional interplay on 'Oblivions', it just adds a much different dimension to these songs that's truly striking! Hell, even the points where Lisa Hannigan takes the lead on tunes like 'So Far So Fast' and 'The Pull Of You' is such a very different vibe to your average National song, but the tones and heaviness are all unmistakable to the band.

So let's talk about some of that content, which on the surface might seem to reflect a lot of similar depressive alienation, loneliness, and relationships in mid-collapse that have been Berninger's bread and butter for decades now... but where so much of the last album felt crushed down by the weight of social change and then ceded responsibility to the next generation, the presence of another voice on the track seems to snap reality much sharper into focus, either to highlight the weight of his regret in the failures or to show how something might indeed work if there's something left to build against. I'm not going to call this project optimistic - it's too heavy and melancholic to ever really fall in that territory - but the blacks are starting to give way to greys, the dawn is coming, and while that weight isn't about to give way, it can be lifted, and if you don't actually do something, you could well lose it all, and that constant echo of the other voice opposite Berninger's is a great reminder of that. And I like that this album might begin with post-breakup songs like 'Quiet Light' that are both mature and absolutely heartbreaking, especially when it's revealed that she could well be closer than he's realizing, but with the references to Patti Smith and the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe on 'Roman Holiday' it highlights just how quickly the fleeting connection could be severed by darker forces outside of their control. And yet that quiet, implicit trust holds, which is captured beautifully in 'Oblivions' that might hit that note better than much of what Vampire Weekend attempted on Father Of The Bride mostly because Berninger can sell the weight of that angst and weakness on 'Hey Rosey' without coming across as melodramatic or oversold - mostly because of the realistic realization that there's never any safety in any of it, both internally and externally, but if that trust persists it can save them both from their own minds. That's one reason why I appreciate how 'Where Is Her Head' and 'Not In Kansas' are paired together, even if the latter case is a meandering dissection of human weakness in the face of slipping religion, Midwestern decay, environmental catastrophe, and his own failures in the face of societal masculinity. But across that tempestuous scene, if something is actually done to stay aware and engaged of who they and their partner is becoming, they'll hold together from beginning to end - the title track captures that wonderfully, mostly by highlighting the modern ticker tape of social media connections actually can serve as that tether to someone who could know you as much or more as you might know yourself - hell, compared to most social media backlash in music, that's damn near utopian!

So okay, lyrics in slightly different territory than what you'd normally expect from The National - a little more abstract and higher concept, but it does fit with the mood better, so where is the real departure? Well, that might come in two forms: production and overall structure, and let's start with the latter. To put it mildly, this is a lengthy project with multiple choral interludes that are pretty but don't add a ton to the experience, and for a band that's always had a trying time with momentum, it's hard not to think that a few songs drag or feel redundant. And this is where we have to touch on what might be the most divisive part of this album, and it's linked back to the film's director and co-producer of this album: Mike Mills. Now it's a little tricky to pinpoint his exact impact, because it's not like the dense percussion lines, spasms of guitar, striking piano melodies, and lush arrays of strings are foreign to The National - this is probably their most elegant album since High Violet and to my surprise the blending with the more frenetic percussion lines tends to work with a better and deeper melodic foundation; hell, a song like 'Rylan' has been written since High Violet and performed live and it could easily sound like a cut from that album here. But Mills has said in interviews that he was trying to push The National away from the richer guitar-driven grooves that have driven their material in the past towards spacier, more synth-touched atmospheric material... and between that and including leftovers from Sleep Well Beast like 'The Pull Of You' and the overlong 'So Far So Fast', the album can lose momentum, especially in its back half. And again, a big part of this is because many of the synths just don't have a lot of body or will glitch out just as frequently as the guitars, so they can sound like accents that don't add to the formula as much as they could - the one place that it actually seemed to click is the plucky 'Quiet Light' with its full bass and piano foundation, but I can't say I was wild about the keening drones of 'The Pull Of You', or the buzzy, filmy touches around 'So Far So Fast' and the title track, or the slight oscillation over 'Hairpin Turns' - and I really like the last two! And hell, call me a National traditionalist if you'd like, but when this album punches up the crescendos like on 'Hey Rosey' or delivers ballads like 'Oblivions' and 'Light Years' or even just a straight-up rock song like 'Rylan', I think the choices to add noisier percussion, the female singers, and keep a strong melodic groove might have hit harder.

But as a whole... I'll be honest, while I'm happy that The National made a relative return to form with this, there were two sets of choices made with this album. The first were in the inclusion of additional voices to supplement our frontman and in terms of lyrical cohesion, dramatic weight, and striking harmonies, this was an absolute slam dunk... but I absolutely question the inclusion of production choices that keep this linked to elements that didn't really work on Sleep Well Beast and only serve to distract from a core sound that's incredibly strong already. And that's the exasperating thing for me, because you can point to the involvement of Mills and that short movie and the ceding of some control here and how it's led to a glossier, but flabbier project, which can play into a weakness for this band. And that's frustrating because when you have fantastic songs like 'Oblivions' and 'Quiet Light' and 'Rylan' and 'Not In Kansas' and 'Light Years', or even cuts like the title track, 'Hairpin Turns' and 'Roman Holiday', you wish the album was streamlined to focus on those. That said, quality is quality, which means I Am Easy To Find gets a light 8/10 and absolutely a recommendation: the best songs yank this into greatness, and if this is what The National needed to get right back on track, I'm happy its here. And like The National seem to be, I'm optimistic - I'm seeing light on the horizon.

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