To preface this: If you haven’t heard of or listened to The National, its eighth album I Am Easy to Find probably isn’t a good place to start.
If you listen to and enjoy The National, however, this album is a lush continuation of the emotionally intense, sonically smooth, “acquired taste” musical landscape that the band has cultivated throughout its years of creating music — and while it’s staunchly on brand, it’s still pretty damn good.
You have to give the band some credit. 2017 saw the release of Grammy-winning Sleep Well Beast, a musical tour de force difficult to upstage. And ultimately, I Am Easy to Find is still set apart from the band’s previous releases. It’s something of a concept album, created in tandem with a short film of the same name starring Alicia Vikander as the main character. The film was directed by Mike Mills, and it’s a black-and-white tale of a woman’s life paired with subtitles, very occasional dialogue and, of course, fragments of songs off the album.
And there are also several guest vocalists included on the album (most of them women), a first for the band. For instance, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus was brought in to perform various songs on its own, sans frontman Matt Berninger’s trademark baritone, drawling vocals.
These new additions admittedly do force The National out of its male-dominated rock band mold, but soundwise, the album wholeheartedly commits itself to that which has come before. Over time, the band has evolved to become technologically complicated, using more instruments and electronic sounds to amp up its musical concoctions and moving away from its earlier, bona fide sad rock ‘n’ roll days. This evolution is still very much present, rounding out the sound of the album as a whole. Long gone are the days when the band produced somewhat stripped-down, classic rock-sounding music.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an album by The National without lyrics that, when put in print, can easily read like poems in their own right. On the album’s titular track, Berninger sings, “ ‘Towers to the skies, An academy of lies’ / You never were much a New Yorker / It wasn’t in your eyes”; on “Light Years,” he sings, “Oh, the glory of it all was lost on me / … And I would always be light-years, light-years away from you.” These words all come together to enhance the listening experience, adding poetics to a technically impressive sound.
Where the album falls short, however, is in its inclusion of songs that feel like they unnecessarily take up space more than anything else. Two such songs are “Not in Kansas” and “Hairpin Turns,” which are not particularly compelling soundwise. The same is true for “Her Father in the Pool” and “Underwater,” songs sung by the Brooklyn Youth Choir that sound similar to one another and also fail to do much more than serve as auditorily dull bridges to other songs.
After all, part of the brilliance of Sleep Well Beast was the way that every song felt like it had a purpose — as should be expected of any concept album. And I Am Easy to Find is a concept album at its core, grounded in its connection to an artistic idea (in this case, the story of a woman’s life) and thus necessitating cohesiveness. It’s a nitpicky thing to complain about, but if The National has taught its listeners anything over the two decades it’s been active, it’s that we should never expect anything but more from this complex, existentialist rock outfit.
That doesn’t mean the album is devoid of bangers. Quite the contrary — standout tracks such as “Oblivions,” “Where Is Her Head” and “I Am Easy to Find” encompass the soul of the album, simultaneously boasting all the auditory decorations that have decked out the band’s music as of late and the poignant, woeful lyrics that we fans have come to know and love.
So, if you’ve yet to dive into The National’s discography, now is as good a time as any to start, and Vice has already done the work of compiling a solid guide to doing just that. I Am Easy to Find isn’t the band’s best album ever — but it still hits all the right, angsty spots. Have we ever wanted anything else from The National?