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Finding a little bit of all of us in The National’s I Am Easy to Find

I Am Easy to Find is a muted explosion of everything that makes The National so damned compelling.

I Am Easy to Find isn’t a tour de force. It’s not a show-stopper. For all its experimentation, it’s probably not going to flip the entire music world on its head. But for all the bombastic, larger-than-life things it isn’t, this eighth album released by Ohio rock band The National is a gift.

Born out of a symbiotic, somewhat freeform experiment with director Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women) culminating in the release of the album and a short film of the same name, I Am Easy to Find is a muted explosion of everything that makes The National so damned compelling.

You remind me of everyone

But first, let me rewind. For those who are less obsessively aware of the band’s work, The National is composed of Matt Berninger (vocals), Aaron Dessner (guitar, piano, keyboards), Bryce Dessner (also guitar, piano, keyboards), Scott Devendorf (bass), and Bryan Devendorf (drums). They’ve been around since 1999, have won one Grammy and been nominated for two more, have had four albums included in NME’s list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and are responsible for bringing Game of Thrones’ “Rains of Castamere” to life.

So, what makes this band so special? Is it the way their songs often climax in a cathartic wall of sound? Is it how Berninger’s gravelly vocals manage to be both deadpan and overwhelmed with emotion? Critics and fans alike could debate and wax poetic about this forever, but you’re reading this so here’s my two cents: above their masterful musicianship and technical skill, it’s their ability to conjure up the dark, pessimistic, self-deprecating, terribly flawed parts of ourselves, and then shoot through all of that melancholy with wit, beauty, and even joy that makes them so broadly appealing.

Time to find a new creature to be

I Am Easy to Find continues on this same track but, maybe because of how the album came to be, it feels like an evolution.

It was an accident, somewhat. The band, fresh off touring their last album, Sleep Well Beast, was approached by Mike Mills for a collaboration. On what, exactly, neither party was sure.

The band with Mike Mills (second from left) / Photo credit: Graham MacIndoe

Jumping into this undefined project armed only with bits of unfinished music and the faith in each other’s talent, they collaborated in a way new to both band and director: Mills would send clips overlaid with tracks sent by the band, and the band would respond by sending new versions of their songs that they felt fit and played better with the film. Mills would then respond with new cuts of the film, and the cycle repeated.

The result isn’t a film meant to be an extended music video, like Beyonce’s Lemonade or even Childish Gambino’s Guava Island (or Prince’s Purple Rain, which I feel is the best of the lot). Neither is the album simply a soundtrack for the film. Instead, we’re treated to two separate works, each one making the other that much better.

Perhaps its collaborative beginning is what set off its trajectory. This album has the most featured vocalists compared to any previous: Gail Ann Dorsey, Eve Owens, Diane Sorel, Mina Tindle, Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten, Kate Stables, and even the Brooklyn Youth Chorus all lend their voices to the album. They overlap with, interject, dissent, and interrupt Berninger, and he often takes a vocal backseat. This new combination and balance of voices helps create a softer version of The National’s sound, and weaves narratives that feel less like the ruminations of an individual and more like conversations.

What was it you always said? We’re connected by a thread

And then there’s the film.

Alicia Vikander leads us through the life of an unnamed character from her infancy to the end of her journey. Much like the album and a lot of the band’s prior work, the film is in turns happy and sad, mundane and beautiful. But that’s life, isn’t it? Each snippet we’re given shows a person influenced by relationships made (and lost) along the way. They are carried with her and are the source of her constant process of becoming who she is and will be. At the end of it, she’s alone but also not, and we’re utterly destroyed as we’re reminded that eventually, we are our only companion, though we all hope to be with loved ones when our time comes.

I Am Easy to Find bridges media, time, and space, and brings together a myriad of voices and perspectives in its creation. In a world where heartache and seemingly impassable distances appear to endlessly multiply, it’s these connections that shine through the bleakness, and it’s these connections that really make the album.

Relationships make life hard and make life beautiful and make us who we are. If a song on The National’s newest album has more outside collaborators on the track than band members, is it still a song by The National? The answer is yes, in the same way individuals are made up of a myriad of interactions and shared moments. Where do we end and where does everyone else in our lives begin? We are all part of each other, inextricably intertwined, for better or for worse.

The album and the film are a gift because they’re a microcosmic reminder of the heart of life: it’s sad, it’s hard, and it’s most beautiful when it involves others.