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Indie rock’s masters of melancholia

  • The band, The National, has made a career out of channelling melancholia and emotional suffering
  • It has released a total of eight full-length albums, the latest of which, I Am Easy To Find, came out in the middle of this month

Alicia Vikander on the cover of ‘I Am Easy To Find’.
Alicia Vikander on the cover of ‘I Am Easy To Find’.

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The first record by The National that I heard was actually their third album, Alligator, released in 2005. For me, the highlight of the five-member band, originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, but transposed to Brooklyn, New York, was (and still is) frontman Matt Berninger’s deep baritone; his conversational style of singing; and, above all, his highly literate lyrics, brooding, intimate and nearly always steeped in melancholia. Several of Alligator’s songs—each of them a splendidly crafted and often self-absorbed story—quickly became a regular playlist for me and I became an ardent fan of The National.

Since then, the band has become huge, and they have to date released a total of eight full-length albums, the latest of which, I Am Easy To Find, came out in the middle of this month. The new album was preceded by the usual teasers—like many bands, The National released a couple of singles—but this time there was something different too. The film-maker Mike Mills collaborated with the band to make a short, companion film using some of the band’s new compositions and depicting the life story of a character played by the Swedish actor Alicia Vikander.

The National’s albums usually take a bit of repeated listening before they sink in. In 2007, they released Boxer, an immaculately produced set of 12 songs, which from the very first one—Fake Empire—hooks the listener and makes it a riveting experience. Boxer was followed three years later by High Violet; and then Trouble Will Find Me in 2013. The next album from the band came in 2017. It was called Sleep Well Beast, and, like many of the band’s earlier work, blooms fully after multiple sessions of listening and deciphering of the lyrics. The National (especially frontman Berninger) have made a career out of channelling melancholia and emotional suffering—themes that recur in their songs—but it is because they are able to do that so gloriously.

Berninger’s voice is the first thing most listeners fall for and it is (as did the late Leonard Cohen’s voice in a different genre and, possibly, a different league) what makes the deeply sad lyrics seem so attractive. I Am Easy To Find is The National’s longest album to date (16 songs that run over an hour)—it is also a surprise departure from the past. On all The National’s past albums, it is Berninger who does most of the singing with band members—two sets of brothers, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and Bryan and Scott Devendorf—providing backing vocals besides playing guitars, bass, drums and keyboards. On I Am Easy To Find , however, a bunch of co-vocalists, all women, were enlisted to collaborate with Berninger. These include the star Sharon Van Etten, and a long-time member of the late David Bowie’s band, Gail Ann Dorsey.

Fans of the band will notice occasions when the female vocals actually dominate in some songs—with Berninger actually playing an uncharacteristically subdued role. On most occasions, however, Berninger and a female collaborator sing as a duet. The album is different too because of its antecedents. It was film director Mills, a long-time fan of the band, who reached out to Berninger, proposing the idea of a short film that would use the band’s songs. He agreed and shared with Mills bits and pieces, mostly unfinished, of 12 songs he had been writing with his wife, Carin, a former editor at The New Yorker.

Although it shares the same title as The National’s new album, Mills’ short film (he is best known for his 2016 feature film, 20th Century Women) has little to do with the songs on I Am Easy To Find. As we have come to expect from the band, the songs on the album, although replete with melodic hooks, are more about the lyrics and the mood.

The highlight is the track, Not In Kansas, on which Berninger, in free-associative lyrics, appears to reflect, variously, on his youth, on idealism, and on the changes in Middle America. Consider an excerpt: “The First Testament was really great/ The sequel was incredible/ Like the Godfather or the first two Strokes/ Every document’s indelible/ Infidels and Heartbreak Beats/ Smidges of bad ecstasy/ Must have left it in my pocket/ With my Christianity in my rocket.”

On Oblivions, Berninger sings with the French singer, Mina Tindle, and it is about marriage and the uncertainty that always seems to haunt it: “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 the threshold/ Over and over again until oblivion?” It is easy to quickly like Berninger’s mesmerizingly morose vocals and the band’s hook-laden sound but it is never easy to assimilate a new album from The National—even for die-hard loyalists of the band.

Their songs have lyrics that can be interpreted in a dozen ways, depending on your mood and when you’re listening. At times, some of it can appear to be frustrating streams of consciousness but then again (quite often invariably) they fall into place and begin making sense. That’s the beauty of their songs.

Over the years, Berninger and his bandmates, all in their mid-40s, have ventured into other, related projects. Aaron Dessner has a studio where he has produced albums for other artists, including Van Etten, and he has curated several music festivals. In 2016, the band led a massive project, Day Of The Dead, a tribute to the Grateful Dead that features a galaxy of contemporary musicians and spans five CDs. And it is likely that their recent and unexpected collaboration with women vocalists could be the harbinger of more innovative projects.

Meanwhile, for fans of the band, there is I Am Easy To Find to soak in, think about, and listen to on repeat.

The lounge list

Five tracks by The National to bookend this week

1. ‘Not In Kansas’ from ‘I Am Easy To Find’

2. ‘You Had Your Soul With You’ from ‘I Am Easy To Find’

3. ‘Oblivions’ from ‘I Am Easy To Find’

4. ‘Karen’ from ‘Alligator’

5. ‘Fake Empire’ from ‘Boxer’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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