The National has always made for a really solid model of clinical depression. They dive right in, letting Matt Berninger’s impossibly deep voice drag their sound down, down, down until you’re sitting at the bottom thinking well there’s no way I’m getting out of this, guess I’ll just lay here and die.
On I Am Easy To Find, however, they douse Berninger’s baritone in soprano singing, strings, and light piano. It’s like adding a dash of salt to chocolate chip cookies so you can actually taste all the layers. For once, Berninger isn’t trying to throw you in one direction or another for dramatic effect. This record is contemplative and quiet, but has enough energy to keep you moving from beginning to end.
Though it’s got Berninger’s trademark heaviness, the lyrics on “Not In Kansas” provide a pretty good map of the album. In it, he sifts through his memories, trying to make sense of who he is by looking at the past. He sings, “Begin The Begin, over and over / Begin The Begin, over and over” which is one of the three times he nostalgically references R.E.M. (The National apparently opened for them wayyyy back in the day, so that’s cute) but also emphasizes the overwhelming feeling of trying to make sense of humanity as a whole and wondering how it could possibly ever get better. At almost seven minutes and lacking any semblance of a traditional arrangement, it’s way closer to a poem than a song, but it’s a goddamn good one.
The title track is easier to listen to, but maintains that literary quality. In a very self-aware moment, he and Kate Stables sing, “I need to find some lower thinking, if I'm going to stick around.” While in the past he was doing a lot of creating, evaluating, and analyzing (or using higher order thinking skills), he’s acknowledging that he might need to do a bit more applying, understanding, and remembering (lower order thinking skills) if he’s going to survive.
That might sound dramatic, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say he’s struggling with some level of suicidality when he sings lines like “There's a million little battles that I'm never gonna win anyway.” Julien Baker, who writes quite a lot about death and mental illness was very intent on injecting her debut record with hope. Yes, her songs are sad, she explains, but they are also an active effort to work her way through that sadness. I Am Easy To Find is Berninger’s way of working through his own, both by reflecting and leaning on loved ones when everything feels catastrophic.
The brighter notes come in the shape of the anxious dance of Oblivions, the lullabilic Light Years, the slow, building optimism of Quiet Light, and the surprisingly rhythmic Rylan. They all sound very delicate which reflects the content: They are tentative attempts at embracing life and all of its contradictions and complications. He is learning to accept that pain and euphoria can exist simultaneously (“I love you like there’s razors in it”), that hope and fear can live in the same moment (“Everything is gonna be totally okay into oblivion”), that you have to know grief to know connection (“Oh the glory of it all was lost on me / 'Til I saw how hard it'd be to reach you”).
The National still isn’t for everyone — their music is just as morbid and moody as ever. Some of their fans might even miss the urgency of their past hits. The record is a series of stumbles and jolts into a hazy optimism. But that’s what growth is. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and by no means a straight line. The most difficult lesson is often the simplest: Learning to sit with the quiet and just live.