I got my first sense of the sound of I Am Easy to Find, the new album from the National, from a track released by a completely different band. For the album Love is Dead, which came out in 2018, Chvrches invited Matt Berninger, lead singer of the National, to guest on the song “My Enemy.” A little more withdrawn and somber than much of Chvrches’ fare, the cut suggested what the National would sound like if Berninger shared the mic at the front of the stage with a female co-lead-singer. Lauren Mayberry’s sweet, bright voice contrasted nicely with Berninger’s earthy baritone. An overpowering vocal presence simply because of the distinct drama of his intonations, Berninger benefited from the sense of a dialogue taking place, pressing him, ever so slightly, to calibrate his approach to let someone else in.
Mayberry isn’t involved in I Am Easy to Find, but several other female vocalists are present. Gail Ann Dosey, Liss Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten, and several others take their urns nestling up against Berninger’s tones, coaxing unexpected tenderness and delicacy out of him. The choice to bring some gender equity to the vocals reportedly derived mostly from the collaboration with director Mike Mills that was a key catalyst for the new album. Mills crafted an accompanying short film starring Alicia Vikander, leading Bryce Dessner, guitarist and chief orchestrator for the National, to suggest incorporating voices that better aligned with the images of Vikander’s existential struggles. Sometimes songs come across as duets, sometimes prominent backing vocals provide a sort of counterweight, and occasionally Berninger practically cedes the stage, chiming in on what feels like someone else’s song altogether. As Ron Tannenbaum wrote in The New York Times, the result is that the band seems to be engaged in a daring experiment “to see how much Berninger they can remove and still be the National.”
Lead single and opening track “You Had Your Soul with You” establishes the rough model, including the complex music that takes the electronically massaged sounds of the National’s prior album, Sleep Well Beast, and improves on them. There’s a firm assurance to the material, and that command remains remarkably consistent across sixteen tracks and an overall running time that passes the hour mark. The sprawl suggests indulgence or at least some wavering quality as the band explores different avenues, but it’s a steady affair, each cut feeling like a proper extension and expansion of the National sound. “Quiet Light,” with its lyrics about quelling anxiety (“But I’m learning to lie here in the quiet light/ While I watch the sky go from black to gray/ Learning how not to die inside a little/ Every time I think about you and wonder if you are awake”), is immediately identifiable and yet thrillingly, trickily new. Even better is “Rylan,” which is such a purely perfect National song that it feels like its has been in their song book the entire time.
The words largely come from Berninger, but he has some help there, too. Most notably, his wife, Carin Besser, pitches in on several songs, inviting scrutiny of perceived push and pull in the poetic storytelling. Either due to direct contribution or influence, a unique level of playfulness and specificity bubbles up from time to time, including on the lush and lackadaisical “Not in Kansas,” which namechecks Annette Bening and R.E.M. It’s appropriate that the pride of Athens, Georgia is evoked, since I Am Easy to Find calls to mind some of R.E.M.’s strongest mid-period work, when commercial success was something they were gladly shaking off through personally gratifying experimentation. “Roman Holiday” is a fine example. It could have been excavated from some secret cubby-hole in the recesses of New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
The section of my music collection reserved for the National is already well-stocked, which, fairly or not, ups the challenge for every new album. What does this one provide that’s lacking of the other seven full-length studio efforts and other odds and ends? In this instance, the answer is a sharp and succinct “plenty.” I Am Easy to Find pulls off the daunting feat of remaining true to its creators’ history while introducing a contribution to the catalog that is fresh, inspired, and, above all, vital.