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The National – I Am Easy to Find

May 27, 2019

On paper I should be a huge The National fan. An algorithm would say so, however, their work has never resonated with me. I did not hate it – worse it bored me. A few weeks ago my son tipped me off to one of The National’s new teaser singles: “Light Years.” I liked it enough to listen to the new album when it dropped. I am no expert on The National, but it seems like a new sound for them – not boring, but exquisitely weird. This is a great album and I think I could now become a fan of The National.

The album is accompanied by a 24-minute short film directed by Mike Mills, starring Alicia Vikander. Vikander is also featured on the album cover. The film is below:

From what I have read, the album and the Mills’ film inspired each other, but “don’t necessarily need one another.” Mills describes the releases as “playfully hostile siblings that love to steal from each other.” Having listened to the album a few times now and having watched the film I would agree these are independent pieces of art that can be enjoyed on their own. But they certainly complement each other.

What I really like about the album is the elaborate arrangements and the use of several female vocalists. Again, I don’t have much history with the band so I don’t know if this is out of character or not, but from what I reading it sounds like a new direction:

Like the film, the album proudly marks new terrain for The National.  Its overflowing with a variety of voice – from guest vocalists like Sharon Van Etten and This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables to interstitial pieces performed by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus – and the arrangements are vast and orchestral.  

New energy and ideas are confirmed in this excellent article in the NY Times.

The music is atmospheric and dreamy.  The album is gorgeously engineered – it is sonically stunning.

I always assumed that The National were Americana. But, if this album is representative, they are not.  Labeling a band with a genre is usually unfair and rarely accurate. Instead I will note some influences I hear: 

  • Leonard Cohen – not just because of vocalist Matt Berninger’s baritone, but also due to the literary nature of the lyrics and the ambition of the arrangements
  • Wilco – they don’t sound anything like Wilco, but this album has the artiness of an album like Yankee Foxtrot Hotel
  • Bon Iver – imagine if Bon Iver substituted Auto-Tune with an arsenal of organic vocalists
  • Peter Gabriel – if you like Gabriel and Kate Bush’s “Don’t Give Up” you pretty much have the template for I Am Easy to Find

I like this album enough that I bought the LP and am seriously considering seeing the band when they come through my town later this summer. I will be exploring The National’s catalog now.

My favorite quote about the album and film projects comes from I Am Easy to Find‘s filmmaker Mike Mills:

“I don’t know what we’re making – it might be Lemonade for depressed white people.” 

Parting shots regarding the vinyl version:

  • The packaging for the indie record store version is gorgeous
  • It sounds different – in a good way – it is warmer 
  • A well pressed album – it is nice and quiet

 

 

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From → Music Reviews

4 Comments
  1. jprobichaud permalink

    There’s more than a little bit Leonard Cohen about this album. The use of female vocalists to add to the sound seals the deal.

  2. I struggle with the baritone, so I’ve only ever checked out one album but should give them another chance sometime.

    • Me too – the female vocalist really help. From The NY Times article I referenced in the post: “They also realized that because of Berninger’s leathery baritone, the music didn’t fit the film. “If we’re telling the story of a woman’s life, wouldn’t it be interesting to hear a woman sing?” Bryce asked. So they brought in several female vocalists, including Sharon Van Etten, David Bowie’s band member Gail Ann Dorsey, and Bryce’s wife, Pauline de Lassus. They didn’t place these women in a stereotypical role as harmony singers — at times, they supplant Berninger at a song’s center.

      This was a big change in style, and Aaron began to worry whether Berninger was O.K. with it. He texted the singer: “Matt, do you think there’s enough of you in the songs?” Berninger replied, “I’ve heard enough of myself.”

  3. I’m afraid I can’t make that breakthrough to ‘not boring’ with them.

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