The National Further Complicates Its Sadness

I Am Easy to Find sees the rock band involving new voices and a softer approach to evoke indescribable feelings.

A publicity image of The National
Previous albums had knotty and glowering arrangements stiffening into great crescendos that hinted at transcendence. For I Am Easy to Find, something else happens. (Graham MacIndoe)

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.

The movie’s concept speaks to The National’s particular attention to the feminine on this album. In a rare move, the singular-sounding Berninger duets with other singers, all women—Gail Ann Dorsey, Mina Tindle, Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten, Kate Stables, Eve Owen—plus the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Often, just when the listener expects a standard-issue rock climax, the female singers enter a song and guide it to a hymnlike denouement. Or they sing with Berninger, his low growl acting as the sturdy wire in a drape of fine gauze. Or the women lead the song from the start, rendering Berninger’s lyrical ideas as something other than those of a classic sad boy.

The way Berninger’s esoteric phrases repeat across kaleidoscopic tones recalls the modern classical composers that The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner hang out with. The effect is thoroughly beautiful, even if it frequently comes at the cost of The National’s anthemic qualities. The rangy, polyphonic approach fits with the album’s deeper shift, too. Ever self-interrogating, Berninger may lately be wondering whether scraping his own skull eventually yields diminishing returns. Even to a helpless fan of his like me, there’s something parodic and off-putting when, on “Not in Kansas,” his anxiety takes the form of listing artists he’s been digging lately (R.E.M., Hanne Darboven, Roberta Flack). The song’s saved by Dorsey, Hannigan, and Stables intruding to tenderly promise the apocalypse. The story, it’s clear, is bigger than Berninger.

Indeed, the story is often about wondering at someone else’s story: a lover’s, a child’s, a stranger’s. In Mills’s film, Vikander goes through rites of life—school, marriage, illness—as onscreen text notes milestones both tidy (“Learning to read, learning to write”) and abstract (“Aware that her body is separate”). Maybe there’s something softly condescending about this male filmmaker and this male band imagining and marveling at a female experience. But their greater interest is in the genderless arc of life, the epiphanies that everyone shares, and the inevitability of ups and downs.

“Hey Rosey, I think I know just what the feeling is,” goes one of the more hopeful-sounding choruses. It’s one of a few times that Berninger mentions some unnameable thing he aches to have in common with someone else. He gestures to and describes that thing, but never defines it. Over the fluttery kraut-rock of “Oblivions,” there’s this heart-stabbing verse:

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 this threshold
Over and over again into oblivion?
It’s the way that you’re gonna stop needing to tell me
You want me as much as I want you to tell me
I’m over the threshold
Everything is gonna be totally okay into oblivion

Oblivion is another word for loss, which beckons constantly in these songs. But the outlook is the same as on Sleep Well Beast, an album putatively about divorce that was co-written (as was I Am Easy To Find) by Carin Besser, the woman Berninger’s happily married to. Fearing endings but also making peace with them, building relationships with the assurance of their deterioration—those are the paradoxes this band constantly turns over. “There’s a million little battles that I’m never gonna win anyway,” Berninger sings on the title track. “I’m still waiting for you every night with ticker tape.” What to call such wearied determination? Wabi-sabi? Sehnsucht? Maybe you don’t need a word, just a sound, and to that end The National has expanded the language.