Genre: Folk Rock
Favorite Songs: “Not in Kansas,” “Where Is Her Head,” “Quiet Light,” “So Far So Fast”
The first thing you should know about I AM EASY TO FIND is that it’s certainly not going to change your mind on The National. No listener is going to come into this record without preconceived feelings on their work, and I AM EASY TO FIND alternates between being a fairly typical National record while also being the largest platform yet for the Dessner Bros.’ forays into neo-classical/indie fusions. If you found their music dull and dour on SLEEP WELL BEAST or HIGH VIOLET, well, bad news, friend.
None of this is to say that it doesn’t continue the National’s trend of finding new sonic territory to explore on each individual record. The human voice is a far more prominent instrument than it has ever been for the National on I AM EASY TO FIND, whether it comes to the much-vaunted roster of guest vocalists or an expanded use of vocal harmony, both in the form of literal choral arrangements or the more obscured but increasingly intricate backing vocals found in songs like “Oblivions.” But for the most part, many of the songs on the first half of the record (“Roman Holiday,” “Hey Rosey,” “I Am Easy to Find”) sound like outtakes from SLEEP WELL BEAST that probably should have stayed outtakes. There are highlight moments in these songs, and the Sharon Van Etten-featured “The Pull of You” in particular has plenty of interesting moments in it, but they do sort of tend to meld together and make it difficult to find an entry point to engage with this record.
The second half is an entirely different story. I’ve historically had strong opinions about The National and their status as a “rock” band—even though their reputation as a band of sadsacks isn’t entirely unearned, one would be hard-pressed to find a band that delivered the emotional catharsis of a great rock song as often as they did over the course of the last decade. Thanks to a crackling undercurrent of punk energy and the presence of one of the best and most underappreciated rhythm sections in the history of rock music, The National have countered every “I Need My Girl” or “Nobody Else Will Be There” with a “Sea of Love” or “Turtleneck.” I AM EASY TO FIND is their first honest-to-goodness non-rock album. They have their moments of reaching back into that endless well of energy and forward propulsion on the frenetic lead single “You Had Your Soul With You” and on “Where Is Her Head” (which may or may not be sung by Clive Owen’s daughter Eve? This is unclear), but there’s a higher proportion of downtempo tunes here than usual.
The most obvious exception is “Rylan,” a song that first emerged in between HIGH VIOLET and TROUBLE WILL FIND ME and, despite becoming a fan favorite in the vein of Radiohead’s “True Love Waits,” sort of disappeared after not being included on an album. It’s a very generous gift to the band’s fans to include it on an album release, and the song hits the same as it did when it first surfaced eight years ago on its own. Its fit on this record is a bit tougher to parse. It sounds quite out-of-place musically, to be frank. The National’s sound has changed a ton since HIGH VIOLET, and placing “Rylan” between the shuffling electronic dirge “Hairpin Turns” and the lightly atonal and experimental “Underwater” underscores that quite a bit. But perhaps on a record that seems to be about disorientation and uncertainty, a literal relic of the National’s past serves a purpose beyond its text. We’re 20 years into this band’s career, and we all know how we feel about them. If you’re listening to this record, it’s probably because you’re a fan in some capacity. You might associate “Rylan” with some sort of halcyon period on your life when Barack Obama was campaigning for re-election to “Mr. November” and things just seemed simpler. This could be looking farther into it than necessary, but given the National’s well-documented internal turmoils and the lyrical themes of this record, it’s certainly possible.
I AM EASY TO FIND is easily the most ambitious National record, but somehow, considering the presence of “Rylan” and what feels like outsized creative influence from the Dessners and from filmmaker Mike Mills, it all signals that the expiration date of the National is coming sooner rather than later. This record will appeal the most to their long-time fans, and it might end up being a popular pick in debates over which National album hits the hardest because of its big ideas and mostly solid execution of them. Despite some concern that their female vocalist “stunt casting” would be patronizing and ill-conceived, it works well pretty much all across the board. Matt Berninger is still very much the center of this universe, but in a time where indie rock is expanding into a trend of collaboration between artists, it’s a savvy move for Berninger to turn his usual monologues into conversations. A bit too bloated perhaps, and in spite of its ambitions, it doesn’t ever seem to fully grasp itself as a standalone record, but it’s good enough to keep the win streak going.