The National: I Am Easy to Find review – melodious mood music to enthral

The band’s eighth album hymns other artists including REM on understated songs full of trademark emotional intensity

Do the National do a lot with a little, or a little with a lot? On the one hand, theirs is a lush, grandly developed sound, in which every element fits into place, where textures and tones brush up against each other to create an effect that’s often overwhelming. On the other hand, their desire to never be obvious means the National’s catalogue is hardly replete with bangers: they’ve created a musical universe that, while richly melodic, is more about mood and texture than big hooks.

All of which comes to mind strongly on their eighth album, which is rich with lyrical references to artists whose reputations were built on big hooks: the title track quotes from Echos Myron by Guided By Voices. Not in Kansas refers to “the first two Strokes”, to “listening to REM again / Begin the Begin over and over”, and then quotes The Flowers of Guatemala (it also interpolates the rather less obviously tuneful Thinking Fellers Union Local 282). Not in Kansas is a startling, brilliant song, one that seems to be trying to locate a cultural and geographical home. “Ohio’s in a downward spiral,” Matt Berninger sings, “Can’t go back there any more / Since alt-right opium went viral.” All he can be sure of is that, like Dorothy, he’s not in Kansas: “Where I am, I don’t know where.” It’s set to a gorgeous, limpid, understated melody and arrangement that serves to highlight the emotional intensity of the lyrics.

The whole record works best less as a collection of songs than a sustained mood piece: its moves uptempo (Where Is Her Head, Rylan) are tempered by the stillness that surrounds them. The music burbles, without ever insisting. The lyrics (credited to Berninger, his wife Carin Besser, and Mike Mills, the film director who’s also listed as a co-producer) are both allusive and grounded – in The Pull of You the dichotomy in this desperate pinballing between engagement and distance is pinpointed in a single couplet: “I’m either at the bottom of a well / Or spinning into somebody’s outdoor glass furniture.” It’s an album you can come away from unable to hum a single bar, but so captivating you want to return to it immediately.


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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