There oughta be a word for whatever emotion that The National has homed in on over eight excellent albums of gravel-voiced poetry and delicate-ferocious rock. Consulting Mental Floss’s 2016 guide “How to Tell Whether You’ve Got Angst, Ennui, or Weltschmerz,” one might hear all three highbrow, non-anglophone feelings on the band’s latest release, I Am Easy to Find:
- Angst, that sourceless dread? “We have friends in good houses, we have kids in the trees / Now I have nothing but sleepless nights, about everything,” goes “So Far So Fast.” As if to illustrate the toss and turn, an arpeggiator duels with twitchy drums for three nearly wordless minutes at the end.
- Ennui, that freighted listlessness? On “Quiet Light,” the band’s frontman, Matt Berninger, shrugs, “I’m not afraid of being alone / I just don’t know what to do with my time.” Violins peal like seagulls and guitars tremble like brambles in the wind as Berninger describes “learning to lie here in the quiet light / While I watch the sky go from black to gray.”
- Weltschmerz, that pain at the state of the world? The album’s gentlest melody, surfacing and disappearing throughout “Not in Kansas,” reassures that “if … the failures of man make you sigh,” then “you can look to the time soon arriving” when humans go extinct. Among those prophecies, Berninger laments that “alt-right opium went viral” in his homeland of the Midwest and frets that he might not have the courage to punch a Nazi.
But those strains of bummed-ness comprise only part of The National’s vibe. The Cincinnati-Brooklyn quintet, arguably the band of this millennium to most consistently balance gut impact and brainy appeal, usually garnish their wallowing with a dignified strut. Previous albums had knotty and glowering arrangements stiffening into great crescendos that hinted at transcendence. For I Am Easy to Find, something else happens. New voices and unexpected directions beckon as ways out of darkness. A softer approach somehow renders the contours of Berninger’s crises more concrete.
The album arrives less than two years after 2017’s fidgety, political Sleep Well Beast and germinates from an unusual process. Around the time of Beast’s release, the filmmaker Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, Beginners, 20th Century Women) reached out to collaborate. Some songs once intended for that earlier album were rerouted to a new project, one that Mills contributed songwriting and arranging to. He also shot a short film with snippets of the resulting music. Starring Alicia Vikander, it compresses a woman’s journey from birth to death, Up-like.