This eighth National album is the accompaniment to a 25-minute art-house movie. And yet – lush, profound, experimental – it's also much more than that
To immerse truly yourself in this record, you’re going to have stop thinking of The National as just five ‘sad dads’. Think of them as part of a community. You should probably not think of this as your straight-up rock album either. It’s something bigger, too.
After they’d finished 2017’s ‘Sleep Well Beast’, The National were hit up by filmmaker Mike Mills (20th Century Women, Beginners) with the proposal to work together. After audio-visual ideas were exchanged back and forth, they came upon the plan to make a movie depicting the emotional span of a woman’s life from birth to death.
But this was not to be just a movie set to music or some songs written for scenes. It was a symbiotic process where, they’ve said, “the movie was composed like a piece of music; the music was assembled like a film, by a film director”. The 25-minute arthouse movie is led by Alicia Vikander as the female in transition, and the various stages of her life are sung out by Gail Ann Dorsey, Eve Owen, Diane Sorel, Mina Tindle, Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten, Kate Stables and Brooklyn Youth Chorus assisting as guest vocalists, along with many more musicians performing the Dessner twins’ ambitious string arrangements.
With frontman Matt Berninger again working on the lyrics with his wife and longtime collaborator Carin Besser (former Fiction Editor at the New York Times) and the singer looking outside of himself to draw on every individual that will impact on the character’s life, the record owes itself to a cast of thousands.
‘Where Is Her Head’, perhaps the best song that The National have recorded this decade, feels like the track to best represent this openness. With a heavenly vocal at its nucleus, led by Eve Owen, the track is a dizzying symphony of skittering drums, subtle electronica and ever-rising strings, as Berninger barks: “I think I’m hitting the wall / I hate loving you as much as I do / I think I’m running away / I can’t take another day”.
It’s one of many real evolutionary steps on the record. Opener and lead single ‘You Had Your Soul With With You’ picks up where 2017’s ‘Sleep Well Beast’ left off, firecracker guitar work met with some synthetic elements, but lifted somewhere else by lush orchestration and Bowie collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey delivery of the line “you had no idea how hard I died when you left”. ‘Not In Kansas’ frees the band from any kind of trad-rock normality, as Berninger maps life onto the events, landscapes and people around him: “I read whatever it is you give me / It’s half your fault, so half-forgive me”.
Now 20 years into their career, they’ve found a way to make their sound blossom into something more widescreen, especially on the aching Mina Tindle duet ‘Oblivions’; the sheer waltzing joy of ‘Hey Rosey’; and the cosmic farewell ballad ‘Light Years’. ‘Rylan’ is probably as close as you’ll find to ‘typical National’. The rarity, which has since passed into fandom folklore, was originally intended for 2010’s breakthrough album ‘High Violet’ but they could never get it right. Here, it’s oh-so-right – with the assistance of Kate Stables and some soaring orchestration helping bloom their usual melancholic analysis wide open: “Is it easy to keep so quiet? Everybody loves a quiet child”.
At a sprawling 16 tracks and 63 minutes long, the only thing ‘I Am Easy To Find’ suffers from is its sombre and pensive pace, without the feral release that certain fans of ‘Boxer’ or ‘Alligator’ might long for. Hell, even ‘Sleep Well Beast’ had ‘Turtleneck’. ‘So Far So Fast’ drags a little in no particular direction, and ‘Hairpin Turns’ dwells too much on atmosphere. But maybe the record needs breathing space rather than bluster.
After all, ‘I Am Easy To Find’ is not a hit parade. It’s not a background record. It’s not something for cherry-pick streaming. It’s bigger than that. It’s The National opening up their world to everyone, and you should probably join them.
Release date: May 17
Record label: 4AD