Fire Note Says: If I Am Easy to Find was a debut record, it’d be the best of the year.
Album Review: There is a timeline in which, after the release of their breakthrough 2014 record Trouble Will Find Me, The National grew content, decided to avoid musical risks, and abandoned the experimentation that drove them toward indie stardom throughout the 2000s.
Fortunately, we’re not on that timeline, and The National is staying weird. Like Sleep Well Beast before it – a quiet record about divorce and politics – their new record I Am Easy to Find is yet another daring, unexpected and surprising evolution in the band’s irreproachable discography.
I Am Easy to Find is the longest and most sonically complex record the band has produced to date. Unlike the jangling guitars of their mid-2000s work or the dense later entries that won them Grammy nominations and made them one of the biggest bands on the planet, I Am Easy to Find is an explosion of color and sound – the product of a dynamic and ever-evolving group effort. Thematically, even on a verse-to-verse basis, it swings wildly from emotion to emotion, tempo to tempo, arrangement to arrangement.
Lead single and album opener “You Had Your Soul With You” immediately evokes Aaron Dessner’s work in Big Red Machine, his collaboration with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. It’s a spastic, sputtering track that manages to find a pulsing rhythm amid whirling chaos. When guest vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey, – one of many female guest vocalists who heavily contributes to I Am Easy to Find, including Sharon Van Etten – shows up halfway through the track, it makes for a pleasant and smooth surprise.
The record also further chart’s lead singer Matt Berninger’s evolution as a writer and vocalist. Whereas Berninger’s earlier work was more biting, more sarcastic, and often more self-deprecating, the writing on I Am Easy to Find is, like on “Sleep Well Beast” before it, exsteric, melancholy, and far more earnest than on, say, “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers” or “Alligator.” Perhaps this evolution is a result of increased lyrical contributions by Berninger’s wife Carin Besser – an accomplished and gifted writer in her own right – or perhaps it’s the natural progression of a songwriter willing to take chances while still at the top of his game. Either way, while the caustic tone of Beringer’s mid-career work is largely gone, plenty of irony remains, and Berninger remains an exceedingly gifted lyricist, both in his composition and delivery. No one can make a phrase stick quite like him, and there are plenty of sticky lines throughout I Am Easy to Find.
It often feels as if The National is simply playing a distinct, elevated game that no one else knows how to play; the only thing out there that even remotely resembles I Am Easy to Find is previous work by The National or its members. With I Am Easy to Find, The National extend their unprecedented hot streak to six straight records – though, of course, it could be argued that their entire eight-record discography is, itself, one unbroke string of excellence.
At this point, it’s a little unclear if The National only makes great records, or if their records are only great because The National made them – and that’s just fine either way. If I Am Easy to Find was any other band’s debut record, it would be the record of the year.
Key Tracks: “You Had Your Soul With You” / “Oblivions” / “Rylan”
Artists With Similar Fire: Bon Iver / Big Red Machine / Sharon Van Etten
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– Reviewed by Dylan Gallimore