I Am Easy To Find
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The National have always had a precise way of keying into my psychological state. The band’s five members are a trace older than me, and have unquestionably lived very different lives, but I like to think—and kindly pardon the hubris—that we’ve grown up together.
I fell irrevocably for The National with their third LP Alligator (2005) and was lucky enough to catch them at a small show in San Francisco that year. Soon after, I moved to New York City and was along for their electrifying ride, watching my beloved Brooklyn-based quintet’s popularity skyrocket. We bounced around Manhattan together (OK, I was the #1 fan they didn’t know they had, but…), whizzing about the wondrous island from the Bowery Ballroom to Carnegie Hall to Central Park to the Late Show with Letterman to Columbia University. And, the list goes on. The National were ascending into stardom, and I was right there with them, spinning headlong into eternal romance with New York City.
With its addictive, nocturnal energy, Alligator was my prowling sidekick and shall always be my favorite (plus, does anyone ever fully relinquish their first?). But, every National album that’s followed has consistently maintained resonance with my life. Even when their lyrical context shifted to seemingly unrelatable themes (e.g., the responsibilities and fears of newfound parenthood), the phrasings were abstract enough to beg interpretation, managing to click in just the right way.
So, I shouldn’t have been surprised when The National’s eighth studio album I Am Easy To Find cut to my core yet again.
The truth is, I sometimes forget I need the help until I get it. So, when I flew to L.A. in April to attend “A Special Evening with The National,” I went because they’re my second favorite band (first place is reserved for The Cure), and any night seeing The National is special. I’d naively glossed over the impact the experience might have.
After a few introductory words by Matt Berninger, the band’s singer and principal lyricist, Mike Mills’ cinematic counterpart to I Am Easy To Find (sharing the same title) lit up the Orpheum. The 24-minute film poignantly chronicles the story of a woman (played by the ever-enchanting Alicia Vikander) from birth to death, stitching together the many meaningful moments—from big to small—that make a life. Apart from music (rearranged tracks) from The National’s I Am Easy to Find, the movie has minimal audio, relying on mainly black-and-white cinematography, compact on-screen text and compelling acting to drive the plot. As the darkness lifted, my misty eyes gazed about the room and I realized I wasn’t the only one moved to tears.
A delightful Q&A (moderated by Carrie Brownstein) with Vikander, Berninger, National guitarist Bryce Dessner and Mills (who co-produced the album) followed. And then, The National took the stage, performing the majority of I Am Easy To Find and I was appropriately rapt. I had intentionally avoided listening to the single “You Had Your Soul with You” in an effort to save myself for the full record. And by the end of the evening, one thing was clear: The National had met me right where I needed, yet again. This time, they’d given voice to my brand of midlife crisis and spun it into pacifying epiphany.
At age 41, I’m on a quest to disentangle my past, including the few fallen relationships I thought would last forever, but vanished quickly and painfully, often without explanation. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what prompted this exploration. But, I could easily incriminate a variety of factors: my age, the sheer weight of all the intangible mini traumas we face regularly, or my latest ex, who I gave my heart to for the greater part of a decade, and who stormed out last fall and hasn’t spoken to me since.
I desperately ache to derive meaning in all or any of this. Even when the misery abates, the emptiness abounds. And now, like in some cliché soul-searching indie flick, I’ve been trying to reconnect with certain people, needing to make peace and perchance mend a few of my silenced though festering wounds.
While the narratives for the film and album versions of I Am Easy To Find differ, they flow from a similarly heaping bank of emotion. Both are continuously informed by the relationships in our lives that shape our identities.
There’s no better articulation of this than “The Pull of You,” my favorite track on I Am Easy To Find. It’s a song the band instinctively knew to hold for just this album. They’d composed it while recording their previous LP Sleep Well Beast (2017), but didn’t think it quite fit the vibe (and I must humbly agree). But here, it blazes resplendently, underscoring how our connections with other people connect us to ourselves.
The song starts and ends with the same simple, but intoxicating verse: “Something's leaving me behind / It's just a feeling in my mind / What was it you always said? / We're connected by a thread / If we're ever far apart / I'll still feel the pull of you.” It opens with guest vocalist Lisa Hannigan singing, “Something's leaving me behind / It's just a feeling in my mind.” Then, Berninger joins her for the rest of the verse beginning with “What was it you always said? / We’re connected by a thread,” cementing the tethering sentiment behind the words.
The middle of “The Pull of You” is all manner of turmoil, with Berninger staggering through a thought parade of barely caged neuroses before reaffirming his lingering tacit promise to this other person. It’s a process I fully understand, remembering the many phases my relationships have taken. We form so many bonds in our lives; which truly have the substance to last a lifetime?
By design, I Am Easy To Find is The National’s most adventurous work to date. For one, the album features a constellation of other voices, including female singers (Hannigan, Gail Ann Dorsey, Eve Owen, Kate Stables, Mina Tindle and Sharon Van Etten) and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Also, Berninger delves more into the spoken-word realm than ever before. Admittedly, I was initially annoyed by his lack of singing since it’s a key reason I love the band. With Berninger sharing the vocal stage, I was pretty peeved he was further compromising his crooning time.
But, now that I’ve devoured the album a good several hundred times (no exaggeration), I can say I’ve grown to appreciate his near-hypnagogic side-conversation meanderings. They remind me of the line, “I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain,” from Alligator, mixing fragments of past, present and future in a way Faulkner would likely applaud, if not admire.
The rich palette of voices and styles imbue I Am Easy To Find with provocative texture and dimension, providing a soundscape for what Berninger often calls the “fabric of people’s identities.” And though it feels immense, it’s also imminently familiar. In so many of the songs, slivers of memories and conversations float to the forefront, commingling with the narrator’s in-the-moment talk track, before imperceptibly fading back into the tapestry of our greater experience.
The lyrics are personal, but enigmatic enough to conjure something in everyone. Berninger’s lyricism has always struck this balance masterfully, thanks to help from his wife Carin Besser who has been collaborating with him since Boxer (2007). Her poetic abilities shine again here, especially on songs like “Hey Rosey,” with clean, impassioned lines like: “I will love you like there’s razors in it / And she’ll love you like a radiant flame / There’s never really any safety in it / Please do it again.”
The song follows “Oblivions” and “The Pull of You,” making for a stunningly intense emotional trifecta. Previous albums by The National have sort of maniacally (and still charmingly) teetered on the edge of certain paranoias, but here, they seem to accept the uncertainty. Fearless and forgiving, there’s a calmness and maturity that pervades the album. Even the title, I Am Easy To Find, suggests an openness (versus 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me). It’s like a culmination of everything the band has done before. Yes to all those previous songs and unhinged feelings. There is nothing wrong here. There is magnificence in every feeling, and this beautiful, complicated trance of content we call life.
A profound sense of humanity and collective consciousness roots I Am Easy To Find in something bigger than our individual stories and selves. With many allusions to the elements and repetitive lyrics that seem to echo the patterns we see in nature, the album manages to touch on not just our psychological identities, but the greater spiritual dilemmas, too. In searching for the answers, we turn inward, to each other and to music like this.
I’m learning to embrace the struggle, and tuck myself inside every sublime moment. It’s a complicated journey, but I Am Easy To Find has fast become one of my many therapies, instilling an underlying sense of quietude and peace. The record’s liner notes also include the captions for the film, featuring this string of thought: “Feeling, big, small, scared, at ease.” We are all those things—and they bind us, gloriously capturing the grandeur of our shared existence.
Notable Tracks: "Hey Rosey" | “Oblivions” | "Quiet Light" | “Rylan” | “The Pull of You”