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For most bands in a similar position as The National, who are approaching 20 years of activity with accomplishments ranging from winning Grammys to performing for President Obama, the inclination could easily be to rest on their laurels. But The National have never been “most bands,” and despite a reputation for consistency, that high-bar of quality is tempered by the need to keep pushing themselves into unfamiliar waters. Each album from the indie icons has sounded definitively like themselves — cinematic, ornate, witty, insightful, reflective — but no record has sounded quite like the last, either. The five men who make up the core of The National are guided by a restless creative spirit, and that has resulted in some of the best indie rock of the century.
But on their latest album, I Am Easy To Find, the idea of the band as these five core dudes redefines itself. First of all, anyone that’s seen The National in the last ten years knows that the band’s central figures — mercurial frontperson Matt Berninger, guitar-wielding brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and the extraordinary sibling rhythm section of Scott and Bryan Devendorf — has long been expanded to include horns, additional percussion, and even the occasional guest vocalist. Berninger’s wife, Carin Besser, has been credited for helping shape her husband’s lyrics for several albums, while people like Sufjan Stevens, Sharon Van Etten, and Annie Clark have all lent a hand at some point.
But never before has The National felt more like a collective than a proper band as on this latest, with a host of female counterparts joining the fold to sing on the album, including Van Etten, Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan, Eve Owen, Mina Tindle, and This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables. The set-up reflects how The National has functioned for a long time, as a more fluid concept than a traditional quintet, on a record that’s impressive ambition is matched by its execution.
Even referring to the set as an album doesn’t quite ring true. I Am Easy To Find is more of an art project, released in conjunction with and created as both inspiration for and a reaction to director Mike Mills’ film of the same name. Speaking with Mills by phone, the Beginners and 20th Century Women filmmaker explained that he cold-emailed the band as a fan asking if they wanted to collaborate on a music video for Sleep Well Beast, with Berninger responding that the band might want to do something a bit bigger. This led to what Mills calls “an open-ended collaboration,” where the band sent him unfinished songs and musical ideas, with him tasked with imagining where the songs might end up, and how to create something to accompany them. “A whole life,” Mills said, “that should be able to fit whatever they come up with.”
The film and the album ultimately work as both whole and separate entities. The former, starring Oscar winner Alicia Vikander in a remarkable performance that spans childhood to old age, uses The National’s new music to underscore emotional swells, while the latter’s employment of a host of female voices comes directly from the need to have Berninger not be the only singer featured on the movie. “It was about this one character, and how she’s made up of all these voices,” Berninger explained by phone. “Her father’s voice, her son’s voice, her mother, all of these things are what make us who we are. So the voices became these layers of colored cellophane that you laid different parts over each other, and that kaleidoscopic blurry new color is what makes an individual, a unique mind, a unique soul.”
Though it’s easy to imagine some criticism regarding a male director and a male band tackling a story with a woman at the center, Mills admits that the project has to acknowledge that it is a male’s perception of a woman, and would never attempt to show how a woman would perceive themselves or another woman. “A man looking at a woman has a history and a politics and is devastatingly great at getting it wrong,” Mills said. “All good intentions can go very wrong there. I have a personal take there where I grew up in a family with a very strong, really interesting, and cryptic mother and these really intense, strong older sisters, 10 and 7 years older, who were already adults. And a closeted gay dad who was very sweet but also not really there. So, I grew up in this dense female soup, watching women and trying to understand women. Trying to do right by women. So, writing female characters is more comfortable to me than writing male characters, or it feels more familiar to me.”
“But that’s fraught with getting it wrong,” he continued, “and my wife and female friends will be the first to tell me how I got it wrong or how I made presumptions or how I treated the character too gingerly. But I’m just very drawn to working with female actresses and it’s not something that I’ll be able to stop thinking about or doing, because my first love and relationships were with these strong women.”
Whether he is successful in the endeavor will largely depend on the viewer, but what’s undoubtedly true is that the album and film come from an empathetic desire for connection. There’s a focus on how we can see ourselves in the experiences of others, and how the person we become begins before we can remember and can ultimately influence the lives of countless others around us. Musically, it’s just wonderful to hear Matt Berninger find new ways to collaborate within the record, at times disappearing completely only to reemerge and find previously unheard harmonies with his counterparts. The band might see this album as a logical step, but for those on the outside, it can often feel revolutionary; a fully-realized version of an already great group that is still discovering new ways to present themselves.
Uproxx caught up with Berninger to discuss the album and the film, and even got a brief appearance from Besser. In the edited and condensed conversation below, Berninger also touches on his relationship to the music of The Strokes and his reaction to people’s characterization of his music.