With about two decades of recorded music and seven full-length studio efforts behind them, the National are somewhat burdened by their most distinctive elements. Barring a massive, likely fan-alienating reinvention, a new National song is going to exist in the echoes of previous recordings. The trick is to make sure it’s not drowned out by those familiar elements: the crisp drum beats, the gleaming guitar lines, the ballast of Matt Berninger’s lead vocals. On the lead single from their forthcoming album, I Am Easy to Find, the National pull off the trick nicely.
“You Had Your Soul with You” opens with disruption. The music carries a hint of the National sound, but it’s been transformed to be more electronic, pinging and ponging. And there’s a unpredictable stuttering to it, as if a CD player is malfunctioning or streaming audio is bogged down by a balky connection. Even when the song finds its way to greater stability, Berninger’s voice enters with unfamiliar tenderness. He’s singing a little higher than usual, a little airier. He glides atop the track rather than nestles into it, as if intrigued by the continuing skitters and starts. And then, at the midpoint, guest vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey (best known for her place as an honored regular in David Bowie’s backing band) enters, giving the song further contrast. Early reports suggest that Dorsey is one of several lending their voices to the new album, and it’s a remarkable level of transformation that comes from Berninger tempering his fulsome baritone to meet another’s tones.
Maybe stirring reinvention isn’t that difficult, after all.