I Am Easy To Find (4AD/Remote Control)
Although it offers an array of female lead voices alongside – against? – Matt Berninger’s baritone on almost all the 16 tracks, the eighth The National album is not a series of duets. That would be an inadequate description for what those voices – Berninger’s as first among equals – do, an underselling of the purpose they serve here.
I Am Easy To Find works as a continuing conversation, a confluence of conversations actually, for this isn’t about a couple batting back and forth their “issues”, or some exploration of how two people fall in, or out of love. For a start while there are times when the voices speak to each other, there are many moments when they work in unison, taking things from the singular to the plural emotionally as much as factually, and others where the words of one fly past the words of another, passing but not touching.
The album is instead a long slice of a broader community caught mid-conversation, our arrival as listeners coincidental as some voices raise old points, others soothe even as they offer little symbols of crushing faith, some prick with envy or hurt, others carry comfort naturally. These arguments, these needs, have been expressed before and they will be expressed again when we look away.
While we are here though, how fortunate the band, and we, are to have the use of voices such as Gail Ann Dorsey, Mina Tindle, Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten, Kate Stables, Eve Owen, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Different in tone and delivery, they serve to flesh out the stories beyond Berninger’s romantically wearied expression, and the imperfect men he describes, in shades of need and suppression, loss and strength.
This “community” is an apt result as this is an album created beyond the five men who made the previous seven albums. Berninger’s wife, the writer Carin Besser, long a contributor to the lyrics, is credited more prominently, her presence appropriately now along the lines of Tom Waits’ significant partner in all things, Kathleen Brennan.
Already known for their ability to frankly detail the inner workings of relationships - in ways which seemed too close to the bone to be tolerable if they were even half true for them - Besser and Berninger spark brilliantly. And the language, like the terrain, is harsh and beautiful and terrifying and tender in varying degrees.
For every pointed or brutal line from one lover to another, there’s a striking couplet about mid-term American life (“My bedroom is a stranger’s gunroom/Ohio’s in a downward spiral/Can’t go back there anymore/Since alt-right opium went viral”) next to one which feels like it has burnt through a drenched cardboard square in the memory (“Infidels and Heartbreak Beats/Smidges of bad ecstasy/Must have left it in my pocket/With my Christianity and my rocket”).
Both of those examples by the way coming from the gentle exterior but excoriating centre of Not In Kansas, a sweeping canvas of a song which ranges further still, to the borderlands and the children ripped from their parents, and back to a crumbling relationship, all while retaining a disconcerting beauty. But then disconcerting beauty is par for the course here.
The other contributor to this imagery, and we must assume, this sonic atmosphere is filmmaker Mike Mills whose initial suggestion of a collaborative side project ended up with him credited as co-writer of the lyrics and melodies, and co-producer of the album, with the band, as well as the maker of a film which is partnered with the album.
Exactly what his role in the studio was is not clear. Where for example did the music of the Dessner twins, Aaron and Bryce, and the melange of The National’s interior middle period sound, their more externalised “rock” earlier tones, or the electronic-influenced ones of their last album, intersect with him?
Did the fractured style/tempo of the sequencing reflect the band’s desire to dislocate our expectations or his discontinuous storytelling? Or both? To whom can be attributed the swirling, almost Glass-ian interlude Underwater (one of two instrumentals) or the cut-up guitars/piano which signal the start of the album and of You Had Your Soul With You? Or the strings, artfully arranged and deployed?
Doesn’t really matter. I Am Easy To Find is a restless, exploratory record which on initial hearings sounds in carefully placed but not always understood pieces. But then it begins to coalesce, to reveal patterns in repetitions that come well apart but remain connected, or appear to provide pre-echoes of moves not yet heard. Or, perhaps most strikingly, makes this something which could feasibly be played in many different orders.
The acute Oblivions, where most prominent are Mina Tindle in the foreground and a chorus of other female voices which swell up from background to front of the chapel by song’s end, compresses emotions into bite-size chunks and yet fills you with its reach. In the agitation of Berninger’s delivery and the jumpy new wave rhythm of Where Is Her Head there is a calm centre which is part Eve Owen and part a kind of Cure drone.
The rhythm section brothers, Bryan and Scott Devendorf, provide the organic push behind the electronic tremble in The Pull Of You but then a Dessner guitar wrangles its way into the middle and provokes a response from the bass which is only resolved by the later arriving piano. While the chanted and trilled massed vocals of Dust Swirls In Strange Light play as something astral, it is those familiar rolling-forward drums which serve to both tie the song to the ground and give it momentum.
For So Far So Fast, an echoey distant guitar is the constant as vocals go from hushed solos to choral, the programmed drums slowly elevate themselves, and yet nothing is resolved, but Roman Holiday, coming across like something from the second This Mortal Coil album with its claustrophobic mood cut through with sharp guitars and bandaged up with muted strings, feels like nothing but resolutions.
Indeed, it is This Mortal Coil, a personal “covers” project of Ivor Watts-Russell which could only be realised by a common spirit among many, disparate artists, that I keep coming back to as I play this album. (An album which, hardly coincidentally, is on the same 4AD label Watts-Russell founded.)
The three TMC records feel like touchstones for I Am Easy To Find: interior but not confined, yet while rhythmic and assertive in parts always within boundaries; using multiple voices, especially distinctive female ones, that somehow feel drawn from a central source; narrowing its emotional range but feeling as if its variations within that are endless; reflecting a period of turmoil in the broader society without losing connections or tenderness, or vulnerabilities.
And always a feeling of unity. Of community.
(A version of this review was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.)