“Remember when you lost your shit and / Drove the car into the garden / You got out and said I’m sorry / To the vines and no one saw it,” The National’s frontman Matt Berninger sings on “I Need My Girl” from Trouble Will Find Me (2013). This is the kind of song The National became famous for: It creates sentiment through pared-down specificity, and then it breaks your heart as you suddenly imagine the garden, the girl apologizing to the vines and the aching desire fed by this memory. 2019’s I Am Easy to Find incorporates these defining strengths of The National into new methods of storytelling and lyrical preoccupations, suggesting that it’s possible for a band to mature without losing its musical philosophy.
Prior to I Am Easy to Find, The National spent seven albums creating a sound that can best be described by the title of their sophomore effort: Sad Song for Dirty Lovers. The National should be playing while you sit alone at a bar, feeling full of indecipherable emotion, or as you look out a window and think about people you used to be in love with. I Am Easy to Find explores a set of situations less exciting and more obscured than anguish and melancholia. While some songs (“Quiet Light,” for instance) fall back on old themes, the album largely explores new territory. I Am Easy to Find is about what it might mean to stay in a romantic relationship, for both the partnership itself and the individuals involved.
I Am Easy to Find begins with a jangly cacophony on “You Had Your Soul With You,” the opening bars of which are vaguely reminiscent of Animal Collective or w h o k i l l-era Tune-Yards. Then Berninger croons, “You had your soul with you / I was in no mood / Drift away, and I could forget / I had only one last feather left / I wore it on the island of my head,” and it becomes clear that The National has not lost its way. This song shows the band is not afraid to experiment, though this is one of the only examples of a drastically new energy on the album.
Songs like “Oblivions” retain familiar vocals and instrumentation, while lyrics chart an unexplored motif: the weight of commitment in a long-term relationship. “It's the way you say yes when I ask you to marry me / You don't know what you are doing / Do you think you can carry me / Over the threshold / Over and over again until oblivion?” This song, like most on I Am Easy to Find, features a woman’s voice alternately driving the narrative or responding to Berninger. The album was a joint effort between 77 musicians, including some of the band members’ wives, who contributed both lyrics and vocals.
The inclusion of women’s perspectives is what blows the album wide open, providing context and counter-arguments for the careful, self-deprecating, sad-boy protagonist of previous albums. On some songs, Berninger can barely be heard, and it’s gratifying to imagine these tracks as explanations by the women in the relationships The National has been singing about for all these years.
I Am Easy to Find is also the first multimedia effort by The National; a short film of the same name was made in conjunction with the album and directed by Mike Mills, the man behind “20th Century Women” (2016). In this “I Am Easy to Find,” Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”) convincingly portrays a woman’s life from birth to death without changing her appearance. This life happens within a consistently imagined black-and-white world, and I Am Easy to Find provides a soundtrack that contributes to this sense of containment through painstaking and intuitive attention to the film’s emotional interior. While watching the film is not necessary for appreciating I Am Easy to Find, it does provide a satisfying application of the album’s themes to a carefully thought-out visual narrative.
I Am Easy to Find is more daring in its conception than its execution, but the album proves The National doesn’t need to stray from its roots to find unorthodox opportunities for sonic expression. If prior albums were about longing for someone in a grungy basement during a thunderstorm, I Am Easy to Find concerns itself with emerging from that darkness, or remembering it in a new way. “Standing in the sunlight / In the middle of the street / I am easy to find,” Berninger sings in a duet on the title track.
I Am Easy to Find is the band’s eighth album on similar constellations of emotion, but examining these entanglements is a positive feedback loop. It’s turtles all the way down. When, as The National has, you’ve made it your business to explicate every iteration of love — finding it, losing it, holding onto it even when it would be easier to let go — you will never feel you’ve said it all, or even that you’ve said enough. Love, the album promises, is that easy to find.