We aren’t even supposed to have a new National album. Were it not for an out-of-the-blue email, sent from Hollywood director Mike Mills to singer Matt Berninger in 2017, the hardest working band in indie rock would be enjoying a well deserved vacation.
Instead, just a year and a half since their Grammy-winning seventh album, Sleep Well Beast, the band has created their most ambitious and beautiful project yet. Thank you, Mike Mills.
The story of I Am Easy To Find is a little complicated, but in short: Mills wants to do a music video. The band sends him a collection of unfinished songs instead. Those songs inspire him to write a short film, also titled I Am Easy To Find. The film in turn inspires the band to write more songs, inviting Mills to help produce the album. Voilà!
At this point, should we really be surprised that it’s perfect? The band has somehow managed to get better with every subsequent release.
Part of their recent formula has been their habit of introducing a fresh sonic element on each album. On Sleep Well Beast it was swirling electronics and guitar soloing. This time—in addition to having an outside producer who isn’t even a producer—it’s voices.
For the first time ever, Berninger isn’t the singular voice of the band, joined instead by an assemblage of female voices who have come in contact with the band over the years.
The cast includes longtime David Bowie collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey, This Is the Kit’s Kate Stables, French songwriter (and Bryce Dessner’s wife) Pauline de Lassus Saint-Geniès (better known as Mina Tindle), Sharon Van Etten, Eve Owen, Lisa Hannigan and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. These voices intertwine with Berninger’s to create some of the album’s most euphoric showstoppers, including Saint-Geniès on “Oblivions,” Stables on “I Am Easy To Find” and Owen on “Where Is Her Head.”
The strongest voice of all, however, is Berninger’s wife Carin Besser, who has become an increasingly integral co-writer over the last few National albums, and thereby the invisible the sixth member of the band.
What also distinguishes the record is its length. At 16 tracks and 63 minutes long, it’s their longest ever. And while that’s only 5 minutes longer than Sleep Well Beast, the pace is entirely different. With new characters and swooping mood shifts, it’s an immersive experience that you can’t help but get lost in.
With the Dessner brothers contributing their most luscious compositions yet, it’s not hard to imagine the band ultimately requiring a full symphony orchestra to pull off their increasingly intricate repertoire.
And yet, the most moving moments are when the arrangements are at their most sparse. The title track lets the dueting vocals do the heavy lifting. Same goes for “Not In Kansas,” which represents a new high point for Berninger’s poetry. “Light Years” closes the album with a gut-wrenching piano ballad.
There’s no one song that steals the show from this oceanic opus. It’s too large and full of beauty to soak in all its wonders at once. That said, small shoutout must go to “Rylan,” a fan favorite that the band has been playing live since 2011, for finally making it on an album.
I Am Easy To Find is miraculous in so many ways. For its sublime beauty. For the stunning film that it calls its fraternal twin. For the seemingly effortless motion with which the band delivered it while balancing endlessly touring, countless side projects and living in difference cities and countries.
A full 20 years since forming in Brooklyn in 1999, The National continues to embellish their oeuvre and expand the sophisticated potential of indie rock. As impossible as it is to imagine them crafting a more impressive album, their best work may still lie ahead of them.
Ryan is a writer, editor and vinyl collector currently based in Los Angeles. He started Mini Music Critic in 2017.