I Am Easy to Find - Album Review
The National at their most indulgent.
Looking for a review of the Mike Mills short film of the same name? Check it out here
When The National return from hiatus there is a procession. As one of the few bands carrying the traditional album rollout torch, the band of brothers and friends’ releases are typically done in old-school fashion: single tease, single, video, next single tease. It’s a process that’s given way to much snappier modes of delivery, and for the first time, The National are trying something new. I Am Easy to Find, their follow-up to 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, comes with an accompanying short film from director Mike Mills, and a tracklist packed with new sounds and voices. The music is cleaner, more pristine than before, and the album hardly justifies its length; but The National are still serving enough of their classic formula to stay above water.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of I Am Easy to Find is it’s opener. “You Had Your Soul With You” is glitchy, filled with left-right channel switching, and too packed for its own good. As the first single, it has context; there are a few catchy turns of phrase, and a seriously great cameo from Gail Ann Dorsey, but it feels written for another project. Almost a whole different band, especially considering the band never return to guitar-heavy pop on the album’s subsequent 15 tracks, which run from ethereal lullabies to piano-rock throwbacks.
The music beyond the stuttered beginning borrows heavily from the past. In the same way Sleep Well Beast felt like a spiritual successor to Alligator, I Am Easy to Find echoes the drawn-out grandeur of High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me. The songs are layered, labored over ballads that sound focus-grouped to infinity, which, as was the case with High Violet, occasionally pays off. “Rylan” is the obvious highlight, a song the band have been touring since the High Violet sessions. A thundering drum beat from Bryan Devendorf (still the band’s not-so-secret weapon), kicks off with the excitement of a “Terrible Love” or “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” Singer Matt Berninger’s melody is simple, deconstructed, representing a time in his songwriting where mood and atmosphere trumped lyrical specificity, an acquired taste for many National fans. If you’ve heard Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, you know what Berninger is capable of with a head full of emotion and an armful of whiskey; “Rylan” is modern National, and for what it’s worth, an incredible song. I have a slight gripe with how loud Berninger’s vocals are mixed, so that blasting the track means hearing HIS VOICE LIKE THIS, but that’s really a minor complaint.
Elsewhere, The National are complicating things that only hurt them. Their once-signature simplicity has been absent for quite some time now, but the brighter moments of Sleep Well Beast seemed to signal that things might be in for a change. The simple lead riff of “Day I Die” and humble piano on “Carin at the Liquor Store” are miles away from the overstuffed “Oblivions,” a marriage song that stumbles over its watery instrumentation. Melodies move too quickly, in what becomes a running theme on the album, and don’t allow room for atmosphere to seep its way into the music. Elsewhere on “The Pull of You,” the band show an ability to craft explosive pop, complete with spoken word interludes and the addition of female vocalists, backing and lead, contributing to the feeling that this album was cobbled together, and edited without the usual perfectionism the band has come to be known for.
I Am Easy to Find is an album of contradictions. The Mike Mills directed short film inspired by the music certainly captures the emotive, subtle side of the tracks here (“Light Years,” “Quiet Light,” “Rylan”), but a full 16 tracks feels unnecessary. There are too many moments of wasted potential, like the wordy and hilarious “Not in Kansas,” which may have the most lifeless National instrumental yet; think “I Need My Girl” soaked and wrung out with cold water. The album contains some of The National’s best music, but only when they’re flexing the restraint dynamic that made albums like Alligator and Boxer classics.