The National, I Am Easy to Find review: formally expansive but oddly one-note

The band’s eighth album feels like an old friend you’re pleased to keep around, but it suffers from spiritual jet lag

Jazz Monroe
Thursday 16 May 2019 12:49
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The National
The National

The National bassist Scott Devendorf has promised that I Am Easy to Find, the band’s eighth album, is a retreat from their usual “big ta-das” and “grand statements”. This may come as a surprise to the band’s detractors, who have spent the past 15 years complaining that The National wouldn’t know a big ta-da if it ran into their kitchen doing jazz hands. But Devendorf has a point: impressively, this is an even homelier and mellower reboot from the Ohio band, who recently sealed their crossover bid with the Grammy-winning 2017 album Sleep Well Beast.

The biggest ta-da is the arrival of several collaborators, all women, in a series of beautifully rendered duets. Matt Berninger’s self-interrogating, bad-husband vibe has always been complicated by his co-writing partnership with his wife, the former New Yorker staffer Carin Besser – but here, for the first time, the presence of an aggrieved partner is not simply implied. We hear it all in the understated longing of Gail Ann Dorsey, This Is the Kit’s Kate Stables and other guest singers.

Given this welcome development, it would be easy to blame the record’s spiritual jet lag on the frontman. In fact, Berninger has always sounded as sweetly fallable as he does nowadays, and it is the Dessner brothers – The National’s compositional, multi-instrumental core – who come off a little formulaic.

“Light Years”, with its pirouetting piano, sighing strings and lyrics about a predictably lovely yet impossible romance, is the body and soul of a National song that nonetheless feels like its own replica. “You Had Your Soul With You” nails stadium-baroque but lacks the conflicted euphoria of its older sibling, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”.

The film that director Mike Mills made for the band, which collages together several of the album’s highlights, is brilliant: Alicia Vikander undergoes no physical manipulation as she portrays a newborn baby ageing, in one devastating snapshot after another, into a grandmother. She covers tremendous ground without seeming to change at all, in contrast to the album, which is formally expansive – scattered electropop hooks, new voices drifting in and out – but feels oddly one-note.

The five-piece remain at their best – as on the surging, Eve Owen-featuring “Where Is Her Head” – when drummer Bryan Devendorf sprints ahead of the frame. In his hands, morose ballads lurch towards the anthemic and establish The National’s core tension: a lingering uncertainty as to whether you’re having a dire or wonderful time.

But the resting temperature is unusually calm. On “Not in Kansas”, Berninger indulges in a tour of his mind’s back rooms, unfurling a stream of consciousness that ranges from REM and the “indelible” early Strokes records to the alt-right insurgence in his hometown and his bleak outlook for life on Earth.

In the midst of a heartache monologue like “Quiet Light”, he can still drop a classic Berninger zinger – “I’m not that spiritual/I still go out all the time to department stores” – that warms your bones with recognition. Such highlights are many, and I Am Easy to Find feels like an old friend you’re pleased to keep around – even if, had you been introduced today, you wonder if you’d have been compelled to make the effort.

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