Secret Meeting score: 92
by Phil Scarisbrick
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll be aware that one of the biggest television shows in history – Game of Thrones – is back on our screens for its final season, culminating this Sunday. Not only has it drawn record viewing figures, it has also garnered its fair share of criticism. Some people are upset about the way certain stories and characters have developed, with some even resorting to online petitions to try and get HBO to remake their most expensive production. As a bi-product of this though, a larger conversation has arisen about how successful film and television franchises have to balance fan service with honouring their artistic vision.
Although the conversation hasn’t yet spread into music, it would be totally valid to apply the same conversation to artists who boast equally loyal sets of fans. One act that fall into this category is Game of Thrones musical contributors, The National. Rather than bursting straight into the limelight, the group built their fanbase year-on-year as they developed as artists and creators. This allowed their relationship with their fans feel more organic and holistic. One thing that led to this is the idea of them having a ‘signature sound’. The joy and excitement that builds within you as you hear a song like Terrible Love (taken from High Violet) build in a cacophonous melee of instruments, with Matt Berninger’s iconic voice also growing in tow, is tantamount to euphoria. Now they return with an album that largely throws their playbook out the window to follow a very specific artistic vision, and with it risking the ire of their burgeoning following.
In the interim period between last album, Sleep Well Beast, and their new record, I Am Easy To Find, Aaron Dessner started the People project with Bon Iver man Justin Vernon. The whole thing is built on the concept of collaboration, with artists from around the world combining their respective talents to create a myriad of weird and wonderful music. The concept has seeped into this new record and, in itself, the record will seep into your psyche and remain there, even once the needle has lifted. Opening track – and first single – You Had Your Soul With You, starts off with ping-pong effect guitars being joined by Bryan Devendorf’s wonderfully skewed drumming style. The track feels like a more polished cut from 2005’s Alligator, until the whole thing falls away to lush strings and the voice of Bowie collaborator, Gail Ann Dorsey, creating an emotional suckerpunch that you simply aren’t ready for.
Released this week, a short film of the same name that features cuts from the record was released on a bespoke website with no paywall. The film was directed by Mike Mills. He had emailed Berninger in 2017 to offer his services as a music video director. Berninger was already a fan of Mills’ work, so rather than commissioning him to do that, the band sent him the music they had been working on. After being taken aback by not only the visual stimuli he had created, but also the way he had edited their songs, he was asked to co-produce the record. Despite no experience in this field, his impact can be felt throughout the record. Oblivions plays like a conversation between lovers in an incredibly visual way. The Pull Of You features a frenetic array of vocals from psychotic rambles to exacerbated wails, with Sharon Van Etten constantly in the background berating Berninger’s narrator. Dust Swirls In Strange Light sees the Brooklyn Youth Choir take centre stage with their rotating vocals feeling like someone’s inner turmoil amplified.
Long time live favourite, Rylan, finally gets a studio release and doesn’t disappoint. Kate Stables’ vocals sit beneath Berninger’s before bursting forwards to take the song’s pre-chorus. Where Is Her Head, once anchored by guitars, ended up with them largely being cut out by Mills. The result is a wonderfully trippy song that feels like it couldn’t have been made in any other way. Hey Rosey, once featuring those signature Devendorf drums, saw them binned for an arrangement that pulses beneath Dorsey and Berninger’s intertwined vocals. Again, Mills’ play against the band’s usual instincts proves to be absolutely right for this record.
Perhaps the most traditionally ‘National’ song on the record is the beautiful, near seven minute Not In Kansas. Sung over a single, finger-picked electric guitar, Berninger’s stream of consciousness vocals are awe-inspiring. Again though, rather than going down the path that has won them so many plaudits over the years, the song changes up into a three way harmony between Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan and Kate Stables. It would be easy for the song’s segues to feel disjointed, but they flow wonderfully. What the song lacks in brevity, it makes up for ten-fold in impact.
So how does that balance between fan service and artistic vision really stand up on I Am Easy To Find? Well, in short it doesn’t. What it proves is that artistic vision is all that matters. At no point on this record is there a moment that feels contrived or artificial. There may be fans of the band who struggle with this record, but what the band – along with their army of collaborators and the visionary, Mike Mills – have created is a record like no other I can recall. There are little moments you can pinpoint to previous National releases, but everything feels fresh. As slow burners go, some of the record simmers away more than other parts. All you are doing though is peeling off the layers before it consumes you. It may take a while to fully get your head round, but it is also the most compelling work the band have done yet.