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The Guide to Getting into The National, Rock Existentialists

Upon the release of the band's eighth studio album, 'I Am Easy to Find,' here's a guide to help you ease into their impressive, expansive discography.

by Alex Swhear
May 17 2019, 2:29pm

Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro / Getty Images; Illustration by Dessie Jackson

On paper, the National is a band of staggering consistency, methodically cultivating eight albums of moody, restrained indie rock over two decades. In real life, things have been considerably more precarious. The band's self-titled debut album arrived in 2001 almost entirely without fanfare, casting doubt on their future from the offset. Later, following, Boxer's fraught gestation, the band felt that Beggars Banquet was so disappointed by the 2007 record that "they weren't even sure it was releasable," according to producer Peter Katis. After the release of their sixth album, 2013's Trouble Will Find Me, lead singer Matt Berninger openly pondered that "another five years might be too much" for the band. That was six years ago.

The band has endured, though, long odds aside; they even contributed a song to a notoriously brutal Game of Thrones episode and emerged unscathed. The National formed in 1999, consisting of Berninger and two pairs of brothers, Aaron and Bryce Dessner (on guitar/piano and guitar, respectively), and Bryan and Scott Devendorf (on drums and bass). I Am Easy To Find, the band's newest album, arrives this week. The record is accompanied by a 24-minute companion short film of the same name, directed by Mike Mills ( 20th Century Women) and starring Alicia Vikander ( Ex Machina).

On I Am Easy To Find, the band enlists the aid of a large number of guest vocalists, most of them women, including Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, Mina Tindle, and the Brooklyn Youth Choir. Opener "You Had Your Soul With You" introduces this new collaborative dynamic, unraveling into a radiant second half spotlighting Gail Ann Dorsey (formerly of David Bowie's band). The guests tinge the album with an otherworldly, ethereal aura. It sounds both meticulously curated and loosely experimental, and, overall, unlike anything the band has done.

"Something's leaving me behind / It's just a feeling in my mind," Berninger sings with Lisa Hannigan over the galloping drums of "The Pull of You." "What was it you always said? We're connected by a thread." The album feels animated by this notion, as if Berninger fears everything he loves could disintegrate at any moment—or maybe as if he is realizing it's all already lost. "I'm still standing in the same place where you left me standing," he sings on the aching title track, a duet with Kate Stables, almost at a whisper: "I am easy to find."

Those thematic and sonic through-lines make I Am Easy to Find the band's most holistic, unified work since 2007's Boxer, even as it seems them departing pretty radically from their typically conventional song structures. It gestures at what a mature version of The National might look like—more poised, more distant, perhaps a little bit more affected. But for all of its very specific, very self-contained ambitions, I Am Easy To Find is distinctly of The National. The delicate melodies and ornate, surgical arrangements are all here, and they return to some of the themes they mined on previous albums, including the fear of getting older (see: 2010's High Violet) and marital strife (2017's Sleep Well Beast).

While the band sounds as confident as ever in the studio, to hear them speak of it, their future seems anything but certain; Bryce recently admitted that the group's members are "at a crossroads," trying to age gracefully and balance growing family obligations with the burdens of being in a world-famous rock band. Whether their last day is tomorrow or twenty-nine years from now, The National have already curated an impressive, expansive discography that is well worth diving into. And since their work famously requires time and patience, it's best to go in with some help.

So You Want to Get into: Contemplative, Angsty The National?

Do you ever wake up totally consumed with existential dread and wracked with a vague, nagging guilt, for no particular reason? If so, you're going to want to spend some time with this playlist. Navigating your 20s and 30s can spurn growing disillusionment; for some, it marks a weird middle ground between the innocence of childhood and what can seem like a domesticated, neutered adulthood. It takes time to come to terms with the loss of youth, to accept what is coming, and to figure out what to do in the meantime. And it's easy to get tangled in those complexities, unsure whether you are forging the right path.

The National's twin breakthroughs, Alligator and Boxer, thrive on that unease. They exist in spaces of acute self-loathing—at the end of a night of drinking, maybe, or in the early hours of the next morning's hangover. Berninger sings of romantic relationships on the brink of collapse; he agonizes over losing touch with his closest friends. Often Berninger's problems—or the problems of the characters he inhabits —are supplemented with (and then complicated by) copious alcohol intake. Berninger, with his penchant for withering self-examination, quietly became an avatar for a certain brand of millennial anxiety.

Boxer's "Mistaken For Strangers," which comes pretty close to a mission statement, crystallizes this aspect of The National's appeal, with its narrator brooding through the city streets, haunted, reflecting on his own growing isolation. "I've lost direction and I'm past my peak," he admits on Alligator's "Karen," immediately after asking for a drink and some casual sex. Berninger isn't always so strikingly direct; "Squalor Victoria" is slippery in its meaning, but, with its tongue-in-cheek white-collar discontent, it's unmistakably channeling a similar sentiment.

While the band's disposition on record has mellowed considerably as its members drift closer to middle age, that central spiritual restlessness has never totally disappeared. The narrator of "Graceless," who sounds like he's slipping into addiction, is numb and resigned: "God loves everybody, don't remind me," he mutters disdainfully. "Afraid of Everyone" tackles the fear of impending disaster that comes with raising a child. It feels like one of those nightmares where the villain is never defined—only the urgency to escape it.

If this all sounds melodramatic, maybe it is, at least a little bit; after all, the band once played "Sorrow" for six hours straight. But mostly, Berninger's histrionics are earned; these songs work because he writes them with character and authenticity, and his band's arrangements share the energy and complexity of his lyrics. This playlist may be a bit tough to warm up to, but it's crucial to cracking The National's appeal. Note: For maximum Sad Boy vibes, the playlist includes two songs with Sufjan Stevens backing vocals, "Afraid of Everyone" and "Conversation 16."

Playlist: "Secret Meeting" / "Afraid of Everyone" / "Squalor Victoria" / "Brainy" / "Karen" / "Sorrow" / "Graceless" / "Humiliation" / "Mistaken For Strangers" / "Conversation 16"

So You Want to Get into: Rocking The National?

The National's albums are often exercises in restraint, excavating deep-rooted feelings while preventing them from boiling over into chaos. But for all of their slow burning, the band understands the value of an explosive release. Nearly every National album has at least one notable moment where they escalate the volume and intensity, even if only for a moment.

These songs always serve a larger purpose beyond their blunt-force impact. "Turtleneck" is a sneering, seething broadside leveled at Donald Trump; arriving unexpectedly at Sleep Well Beast's midpoint, it pumps some much-needed adrenaline into a record that is otherwise unhurried. Similarly, "Sea of Love" hits in the midst of a glut of slower-tempo songs on 2013's Trouble Will Find Me, leaving the listener rattled as the record snaps back into normalcy with "Heavenfaced." "Mr. November"—written about John Kerry's doomed 2004 presidential campaign challenging George W. Bush—closes out Alligator with propulsive energy, grim but steadfast. Even now, nearly 15 years after its initial release, it remains an encore staple.

Many of these songs, in fact, have become genuine events in a live setting, their carefully polished studio iterations giving way to something much more alive. Berninger's hot-blooded performances electrify these climactic moments; he clings to his microphone, careens across the stage, and nudges his vocals to uncomfortable extremes, at times delivering his lines in a frenzied, clinched yelp. "Terrible Love," in particular, has become a monstrous, punishing set closer. But I have a certain affection for their studio counterparts, which are carefully constructed and sequenced for maximum impact.

Playlist: "Terrible Love" (Alternate version from High Violet: Expanded Edition) / "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" / "Lit Up" / "Sea of Love" / "Abel" / "Turtleneck" / "Murder Me Rachael" / Mr. November"

So You Want to Get into: Somber Ballad The National?

Some of the most essential moments in the National's catalogue come when they slow things down to a crawl. Their most recent work has been a tacit acknowledgment of this. Sleep Well Beast got a lot of attention for its electronic flourishes, but the record's more consequential decision is its laser-like focus on ballads. I Am Easy To Find is even more deliberately paced, more a series of interconnected mood pieces than standalone songs.

Berninger is most honest when he zeroes in on his personal relationships. Berninger has increasingly leaned on his wife, Carin, as a songwriting partner, a collaboration that lends his songs a nuance and honesty that might otherwise be absent from a one-sided perspective. "Guilty Party" is a premature postmortem on a marriage that never actually ended. "Start a War" takes a step backward, capturing the moment in a confrontation where you feel inclined to fight on, but are slowly realizing you are in a fight you cannot win—a moment I found (if you're my wife please stop reading this) sneakily relatable. "Whatever went away, I'll get over it now," he sings, convincing himself that he can easily bounce back from the fallout of all of this: "I'll get money, I'll get funny again."

These descriptions may conjure images of sad-sick piano-driven dirges, but that underestimates the personality that flows through Berninger's songwriting. "Pink Rabbits" pokes fun at that very cliché: "I was falling apart / I was the television version of a person with a broken heart." It may never be clear why he chose to open "Slow Show" with the line "Standing at the punch table swallowing punch," but I don't want to live in a world where he doesn't. He has a way of spinning ideas out of minor, banal details and blowing them up in universal ways.

So You Want to Get into: Crowd-Pleasing The National?

The National has never had a hit. In and of itself, that is no earth-shattering revelation. Berninger's baritone is an acquired taste; the band's arrangements can be moody, stubborn, and difficult to penetrate; and the subject matter is frequently morose. Secretly, though, the band has an uncanny ability to command and enthrall a crowd. Onstage, they're tight and energetic, crafting unpredictable setlists and performing with workmanlike precision.

Those crowd-pleasing abilities, though, have increasingly extended to their albums. This playlist highlights The National at their most pop, with their breeziest song structures and most digestible melodies. "I Need My Girl" sounds factory-designed for weddings and rom-com soundtracks. "Bloodbuzz Ohio," deservedly, is the most universally beloved singalong at any given National show. "Fake Empire" soundtracked an episode of One Tree Hill, as well as Barack Obama's 2008 campaign.

It's a weird dichotomy: This is a band whose reputation hinges on listeners exercising the patience to digest their work, and yet they have a respectable (and growing) list of genuine earworms. For this reason, these songs are an ideal gateway to the National. And once you understand the frequency the band is operating on, it becomes much easier to connect with their work.

Playlist: "Fake Empire" / "Day I Die" / "I Need My Girl" / "Don't Swallow the Cap" / "All the Wine" / "Apartment Story" / Blooodbuzz Ohio" / "Rylan" / "England" / "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks"