The National: I Am Easy To Find

The National
I Am Easy To Find
(4AD)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The National are downright unfair about how they keep upping their game. Here they are approaching the end of their second decade together and they refuse to rest on their estimable laurels. Their latest, I Am Easy To Find, comes just two years after their quasi-experimental triumph Sleep Well Beast and finds intriguingly unique ways to toy with their image as rock’s great brooders.

This album is a kind of companion piece with a short film of the same name. But you won’t need any visuals to spot some familiar National themes, such as romantic alienation and the ennui of wondering is this all there is. Where this album achieves contrast from the band’s past is via the expert use of female voices.

With Sharon Van Etten and others acting not merely as backing vocalists but as occasional duet partners or leads, Matt Berninger’s lyrics sound more like anguished conversations rather than world-weary diatribes. Their colorful voices, playing off Berninger’s deadpan, also bring out the yearning beauty of the melodies.

National fans looking for the high-wire acts of albums past might be disappointed. Save for occasional blasts like the breaking-news urgency of lead track “You Had Your Soul With You” and the peppily bittersweet character study “Rylan,” the music here tends more to the atmospheric. Bryce Dessner’s incendiary drum patter often jumps out of nowhere, only to cede the spotlight to somber keyboards and Copland-like strings.

The title track makes a good case that the prevalent New York state of mind is loneliness, while the lullaby “Not In Kansas” features some of Berninger’s finest pop culture-laden soliloquizing. Best of all are “Quiet Light” and “Light Years,” two songs that view the aftermath of loss. The National prove with I Am Easy To Find that they don’t need the old bang and clatter to achieve their signature melancholic glory.