Willie Reviews The National’s “I Am Easy To Find”

Willie Reviews The National’s “I Am Easy To Find”

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I Am Easy To Find is The National’s indie rock soundtrack for the confused adult or baby. It gets an incredible boost from a cast of guests and a whole new life as a visual album. You’ll find less rambling and more questioning from New York’s favorite Ohioan transplants on this, their eighth effort. RPM’s review:

The National’s eighth album, I Am Easy To Find, sees the band’s tendencies toward the abstract tempered by a flowering of new artists, voices, and styles, all culminating in a visual album directed by Mike Mills and starring Alicia Vikander. It’s no secret that the band, for all their success, loves opaque lyrics, speak-singing, and the understated. But an expanded sound means we get vocalists like Lisa Hannigan, Kate Stables, and Gail Ann Dorsey, as well as the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. We get a beautifully-shot, crushingly sad story of a life from birth to death. We get clear melodies at the forefront of the songs. We get string arrangements and duets—both texture and color!

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifElv18k2O8

 

The film most of all helps to crystallize the sound, look, and feel of what the band seems to have been after their whole careers. It’s a story of anyone that wouldn’t dare name names, but it’s also the story of a living, breathing individual and their saddest, most vulnerable moments. The sets are virtually empty, and the stark black-and-white style is in line with The National’s vague despair. The music and the film build off each other productively: the floating words in the songs that would be otherwise lost to the ether are hammered into place with gesture and loose plot. Conversely, the balanced images in the film are punched in the gut by love ballads and pleading vocals. Grounding the lyrics in space is a giant leap, and it works wonderfully.

“Not In Kansas” has both extremes and demonstrate the band’s new style. The verses contain unhinged rambling à la Mark Kozelek, and frontman Matt Berninger’s lyrics crowd each other until he almost starts gasping. He references The Godfather, Annette Bening, and his aunt Angela, spilling words and then expiring. The bright Brooklyn Youth Chorus takes over to sing “Time has come now to stop being human” and finishes with a little jab that tells of people all over who “hang up their tiresome words.” There’s a recognition by Berninger and his collaborators that the songs have to hit a certain tone and not settle for languid poetry. It explodes the world of confessional poetry, then backtracks into the “formal” beauty of the chorus. The disruption is altogether constructive, and it can’t do anything but help.

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Cinema has an easier time repeating themes than commercial rock records do. There is a precedent in film to recycle a visual motif or a particularly good passage in the soundtrack, but there’s an expectation by the public that The National will present 16 different songs on their record. Mike Mills’ adaptation makes use of its medium and selects parts of the music strategically to hone the scope of the film. “Rylan” is beautifully free and childlike, a sound equivalent to spinning in circles with your arms out. It reappears throughout the film, as do the lyrics from “Dust Swirls In Strange Light.” Those short fragments frame many of the episodes of the film as captions—they recreate images from the depths of the memory and imprint them back onto the film. An all-encompassing type of record like this needs to refer back to itself, and the film does its part.

This new style goes all in thematically on remembering and trying to recognize the self. Part of this is the mystery of childhood, where everything is bigger than you and you yourself can seem invisible next to it. Much of the film focuses on the difficulty of not knowing your surroundings for much of your life, and then realizing you still don’t later in life. The line “She realizes she’s always been afraid of nature” appears on the screen while the woman is an adult. It sticks out initially, but makes sense when we see all the beautiful natural landscapes takings up more space than her. Very few of the songs provide any comfort, but their recognition of these constant human worries is warm all the same.

The National, photo from 4AD

The danger in this tight focus on self-development is that the listener will either feel completely immersed in an hour-long meditation or hopelessly drowned in mid-tempo rock. After each listen, it moved incrementally toward the former for me, but I do understand the initial judgement. It’s melancholic, which is no surprise for the band, but its length and insistence on its tone can make the album’s sound profile seem somewhat smoothed-over. The best route in is surely the film. It’s engrossing and pinpoints the insecurities of the music while still reveling in the fact that it describes every person who has ever lived. I Am Easy To Find laughs at the suggestion that you can’t attempt a representation of “the human experience.” You won’t live the life of the woman in the movie, but you’ll see much of yourself and the way you have trouble seeing inside your own head.

Score: Does a tree feel inadequate next to humans?

 

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