It’s hard not to chuckle when Matt Berninger sings “I sigh a little when I think about you” on a song called “Quiet Life”—when have the National’s sighs been anything but little, their lives anything but quiet?
Over eighth albums since 2001, the National have wrung an infinite variety from Berninger’s scenarios about spiritual discord against the quietly rumbling arrangements by brother combos the Dessners and Devendorfs, seemingly targeted at men approaching 40 in the middle of losing control over their figures, and who sneak smokes behind their wives’ backs during college football championships. Yet I Am Easy to Find is the Cincinnati quartet’s fullest, most satisfying album to date. They’ve hung in there and worked hard, and the effort shows.
Two developments help. First, the participation of a half dozen female singer-songwriters on background vocals and harmonies. When Gail Ann Dorsey and Sharon Van Etten double Berninger or sing his words back, they dissipate the air of overwrought macho miserabilism as if to say, We’re in this together. Most impressive is how they avoid the kitsch of Vampire Weekend’s recent George ‘n Tammy arranging of Ezra Koenig and Danielle Haim. On “Roman Holiday” Berninger and Dorsey evoke the crushed-ashes fervor of Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson on 2001’s “In My Secret Life”—a damn fine thing too.
Although The National have often used strings to signify their bourgeois unease, I Am Easy to Find uses them instead for fascinating dissonances: the burbling electronic manipulations in the coda to “So Far, So Fast,” the violin acting as a poignant third voice to Berninger and Mina Tindle’s duet in “Oblivions.” Nine years after High Violet’s “England,” this album is the peak of guitarist Bryce Dessner’s orchestral wizardry. Though the band didn’t write a full tune for the fabulously titled “Her Father in the Pool,” kudos to the Brooklyn Children’s Choir for singing the melody as if from the deep end.
At this point praising Bryan Devendorf’s drum contributions is like congratulating Meryl Streep for learning another accent, but on “The Pull of You” and “Where is Your Head” he tests, tugs at, and pinions the melodies. No two patterns are the same: The opening of “Rylan” will get listeners of a certain age to sing, “I got my mind SET. ON. YOU.” (Thought experiment: Reduce the National to drums, strings, and Berninger and it would still work). Over Bryce Dessner’s liquid “Pale Blue Eyes” chords, “Not in Kansas” provides Berninger a shimmering vehicle: a monologue chronicling an adolescence spent taking bad Ecstasy and listening to R.E.M.’s “Begin the Begin” on repeat while keeping his Christianity “in his pocket.” He also thinks the first two Strokes albums rule; after all, you can’t expect to walk away from existential dread with your faculties intact.
Determined to regard their fourth decades on this island earth as a time to chip away at what they thought was true, The National have thickened the textures of their sepia-toned portraits of unease. Strong applause too for writer-director Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women), credited as the album’s producer and co-lyricist, whose filmed album with actress Alicia Vikander—an often impressive 25-minute biopic of a woman developing her mind and enjoying her body that complements the work of the album’s female vocalists—encouraged the band to think visually. By showing how moroseness needs other people, I Am Easy to Find turns into a beguiling advertisement for community.