As The National announce two intimate theatre shows in Auckland, James Belfield reviews their brave and collaborative new album.
If 2017’s Grammy-winning Sleep Well Beast marked the pinnacle of that well-honed version of The National, then this new studio album, their eighth, sets them on a more collaborative path.
The most striking evidence is in the number of female voices on the 16 tracks. From the moment long-time Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey’s bold, rich tones trump Berninger’s soft, rolling stream of consciousness midway through opener You Had Your Soul with You, it’s clear this is a deliberate attempt to change our perceptions of the band.
Since forming in Cincinnati, Ohio, 20 years ago, the group have forged an intimate, intense bond with their audience. On recordings, their songs have reflected the anxieties of the era. And their live performances – in which Berninger habitually swills wine and plunges into their increasingly arena-sized crowds – have connected directly with fans.
Dorsey isn’t the only woman giving I Am Easy to Find a feminine touch. All the songs, except the closer, Light Years, feature female vocalists such as Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, Eve Owen, Mina Tindle and Kate Stables. These aren’t cameos, as it’s often Berninger who has to take second or third billing on such tracks as The Pull of You and Hey Rosey.
The masterful Not in Kansas and Light Years return us to familiar territory, but this is balanced by three occasions – Her Father in the Pool, Dust Swirls in Strange Light and Underwater – on which Berninger disappears, replaced by the ghostly tones of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
The reason for this femininity comes from the band’s other collaborative decision to work with film-maker Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women), who has made a short film, starring Alicia Vikander, using the songs to detail a woman’s path through life.
The movie version of I Am Easy to Find reveals why and how the album grew as it did, but it also shows a band in their prime: easy in their compositions, but brave in finding new challenges and a gender balance for their songwriting.
I AM EASY TO FIND, The National (4AD/Rhythmethod)
The National play the ASB Theatre at Auckland’s Aotea Centre on April 3 and 4, 2020. Tickets are on sale June 28 via Ticketmaster.
This article was first published in the June 1, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.