The National. The umbrella that stops the hail from hitting your head, the first sip of water the morning after a heavy night of drinking, the woolly jumper that shields you from a bitter winter frost, you get the drift from this obsessional fan. The National are great, and they’re back with their eighth studio album at the perfect time. As I settle down after another arduous day of masters degree assignment writing, the stress-ridden short term future all of a sudden appears to be less terrifying.
‘I Am Easy to Find’ is The National’s most ambitious project yet. It is also their cleanest album to date, having developed themselves from the rough and ready days of their first three albums. On first listen the album presents itself as a wiser sibling to its predecessor, ‘Sleep Well Beast.’ However, there are major differences from the last album which saw them win a Grammy for Best Alternative Album, the main one being the contributions added by a number of guest vocalists.
First track ‘You Had Your Soul with You’ is the lead single and gets the album off to an upbeat start. Indeed, this song is one of the few from the band’s catalogue that can be described as upbeat; it certainly isn’t a musical trait they’re renowned for. From there things take a further diversion. As alluded to, the album features a whole host of female vocalists. These include the wonderful Sharon Van Etten on ‘The Pull of You,’ Lisa Hannigan on ‘So Far So Fast’ and the sumptuous ‘Hairpin Turns’ as well as former Bowie bassist and backing singer Gail Ann Dorsey on the lead track as well as ‘Roman Holiday’ and ‘Hey Rosey.’
Highlights include the long awaited ‘Rylan,’ a song written many moons ago which has finally found its place onto a National album as well as ‘Where is Her Head?’ A grower which is already flowering. ‘Not in Kansas’ is a lyrical masterpiece narrating these bizarre times in which we live. There are further contributions from the Brooklyn Youth Choir on several short interludes, an idea which The National have not toyed with before. It works and doesn’t disrupt the flow of the album. As a fan I was slightly worried when I saw a 16-song track listing, wondering if the album’s length would exceed my attention span. However, it works. It always does with this band.
There was also a worry with the reduced impact of lead singer Matt Berninger’s baritone vocals. I’d always thought that his voice was the defining feature of the band. ‘I Am Easy to Find’ dispels this as a myth and shines a light on the incredible musicianship of the other band members. The genre defining Devendorf drumming, the sheer musical genius of the Dessner twins and the emotive contribution from a whole range of other instruments. That’s not to say that Matt’s impact is to be overlooked, it isn’t and he hits incredibly hard within this album. If anything less is more, both lyrically and vocally.
The album is also accompanied by 24-minute film directed by Mike Mills and starring Tomb Raider’s Alicia Vikander, which is well worth a watch if you get a chance. It samples songs from the album, portraying a visually creative side to the band which you get the feeling has always been there waiting in the wings.
The National can be seen this summer headlining a Castlefield Bowl gig in Manchester (July 10th) before supporting Florence and the Machine at Hyde Park three days later, followed by two August dates in Glasgow. They’ve also just announced a December UK arena tour visiting Brighton, Leeds, Cardiff and Nottingham. Go catch them and have your soul cleansed for an evening.