Do we truly ever grow up, and separate ourselves from the adolescents we once were? Matt Berninger, The National’s lead singer, seems to believe we don’t.
I Am Easy To Find, the band’s latest LP, exists as a testament to how the band — guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner, drummer Bryan Devendorf and bassist Scott Devendorf — has evolved from a dude-centric ‘90s rock band to a group of male musicians who’ve come to know themselves, and women, better.
And while the album itself is a fine one, it certainly doesn’t match the caliber of the band’s last record, Sleep Well Beast. I Am Easy To Find sounds lackluster, it missing the heartbeat that raced in “I’ll Still Destroy You,” the madness injected with fast-tempo guitar solos in “Turtleneck” and “Day I Die.” It’s a remarkably slow-paced, gentle, hum drum collection of songs that have an uncanny resemblance to one another. If this an intended departure from the sound they’ve come to hone — a collision of rumbly vocals, synths and passionate guitar and drum playing — I suggest they get back on the train and head on back home.
Fourty-eight-year-old Cincinnati-native Berninger told Pitchfork: “My writing was obsessively conscious of being an awkward man. And then I became less of an awkward man.” And the 64-minute LP seems to harken back to that time in life when everything was uncomfortable and confusing. While most of the band members are decades past their teenage years, The National seem to embrace this transient experience in a way that every generation can relate to.
Take “Not in Kansas” for instance. Its lyrics are rich with Beringer’s Midwestern, Catholic upbringing that’s he’s admittedly abandoned, causing him to soar into each stanza with his melancholic, sonorous voice backed by hopeful single strings: “Move back home with mom and dad / The pool is drained and they are not there … I must have left it in my pocket / With my Christianity in my pocket / I’m binging hard on Annette Bening / I’m listening to R.E.M. Again / Begin The Begin, over and over.”
The nearly seven-minute song, making it the longest on the album, is lyrically rife with of Beringer’s early musical idols, with the Strokes and R.E.M being named, and specifically the later’s song “Begin The Begin” being played on repeat. Not only has he rummaged through his forgetten but beloved records, which surely took some part in laying the foundation of The National, but discovered his lasped Catholic faith in the pocket of a hoodie he once donned.
Beringer makes the case that when you leave home, you don’t neccesarily leave the person you were behind. On a trip back, he dives deep back into the discography that defined his adolescence, and the faith engrained into his childhood. The later is further conveyed with a choir-like adaption of “Noble Experiment” by the Thinking Fellers Local Union 282, a San Francisco-based expiremental indie rock band formed in ’86 and best known for their album Strangers from the Universe, placing us in the pews of a church we haven’t worshiped in, in years.
“Hey Rosey,” specifically the intro, sparks similar imagery: “I’m your angel when it rains, dear / Heaven picks the place /I’m a child in that way, dear / Please do it again.” Beringer brings to light, that in even relationships, young and mature, we grasp onto the most early understandings of who we are.
This conscious learning curve to understand women is not absent from the album. In fact, it’s everywhere. You can start with the fact that I Am Easy to Find collaborator and the director behind the 24-minute film that shares the album’s name, Meeks Mills, casts Oscar-winning Alicia Vikander as a nameless subject, with the viewers following her life story from birth until death.
Beringer’s wife, Carin Besser, is the co-lyricist behind “Hey Rosey” and Dessner’s wife, Pauline de Lassus, takes the lead vocals on “Oblivion.” Gail Ann Dorsey, a long-time David Bowie collaborator, brings punch to “You Had Your Soul With You.” Other vocal contributions come from indie rockers Sharon Van Etten and Lisa Hannigan, and Kate Stables of folk rock group This Is the Kit.
Yes, integrating female musicians feels more appropriate for the National now than ever. But, there was ample room in this album for female creatives to take an even bigger lead, co-lead vocals and 30-second snippets seeming so small for the accomplished women who are featured on the album.
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