Album Review: The National – I Am Easy To Find (4AD)

The National’s eighth long player is their most ambitious work to date with a short film and a cast of thousands involved in its creation.

If nothing else, you’ve gotta give the guys in The National credit for not just sitting on their laurels, cranking out the same album over and over again.

With that in mind, I Am Easy To Find, clocking in at just over an hour in length, is probably going to be the album of theirs that will take the longest to completely absorb.

Film director (20th Century Woman, Thumbsucker), graphic designer and former musician Mike Mills (not the guy from R.E.M.) is the most visible collaborator on this project, but there are many others including guest vocal appearances from Sharon Van Etten, Kate Stables, Lisa Hannigan, Mina Tindle and former Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey.

Not only has Mills written and directed a 26 minute short film, also titled I Am Easy To Find, using The National’s music as its soundtrack, but he has co-produced the album with the band and is credited alongside lead singer Matt Berninger and his wife Carin Besser with writing the lyrics and melodies on the 16 songs that comprise the album.

To better understand the album, and to put yourself in the correct frame of mind, I do advise watching the film first. It’s conveniently on YouTube.

The film tries, and mostly succeeds, in documenting an average 1st world human lifetime, and, as you can see by reading the comments, often leaves viewers in tears at the end.

While the album doesn’t quite have that emotional heft, it does aim for the same lofty goal.

The listener is immediately put on edge thanks to the first few seconds of opening song, You Had Your Soul With You. A guitar, cut up into sonic slices pans back and forth from left to right as Brian Devendorf’s skittering drums and percussion take over. Indeed, Devendorf’s persussion skills are a major musical force throughout the record.

Finally Berninger’s familiar baritone comes in and we know we’re listening to The National.

“I had only one thing to do and I couldn’t do it yet”, he intones.

Later, Gail Ann Dorsey joins Matt as the strings seem to pick up from the percussion.

And it should be noted that Bryce Dessner’s orchestrations are the other major music ingredient at work here and throughout.

Next is Quiet Light, a song leftover from the Sleep Well Beast sessions and one that is more traditional sounding. It’s a heart-wrenching breakup song with Berninger singing, “I just don’t know what to do with my time”, and again the percussion and strings sweep us along by the end.

I don’t know if its Mills’ influence, but there a a huge amount of cultural references to be found among the lyrics…Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe in Roman HolidayR.E.M., Roberta Flack, The Strokes, Neil Armstrong and Annette Bening in Not In Kansas, to name a few.

The first half of the album seems to be building up to track 10, Not In Kansas, which, at 6min 45 sec, is the album’s longest cut, and its most ambitious. In short, it seems to be about facing death.

“Time has come to stop being human”, sing Gail Ann, Lisa and Kate as an angelic choir, “All your time has expired”.

When it all works, it’s quite moving, but there are also instances when, because of several spoken word interludes and the various voices dropping in and out, that it has the feel of an amateur musical theatre production.

Also, as an album, the songs all seem to have a similar feel which tends to get a bit tiresome in the later tracks…plus I can’t say I’m a big fan of the three short interludes featuring the Brooklyn Youth Choir.

Having said that, this is still an impressive body of work, one that you’ll want to take time and effort to get to know.  I almost would like to hear an instrumental version of the songs, as the music sometimes gets overwhelmed by the lyrics.

It will be interesting to see how well this album works on stage. I believe the band has just hit the road. Will they bring along guest vocalists? Will they present the album as a whole? Will audiences be attentive in a large arena?

This is music best enjoyed alone, with headphones. Immerse yourself in it to fully appreciate it.

Marty Duda