When The National performed at Cork’s Sounds From A Safe Harbour festival in 2017, they were raising the curtains on 18 months of punishing touring. After that, the plan was to lay low and recuperate. What the Ohio five piece certainly hadn’t in mind was recording another album so soon after their career-best Sleep Well Beast.
But then indie film-maker Mike Mills — not be confused with the REM guitarist — reached out with the proposal to shoot a video for the group.
They went one better and had Mills collaborate with them on a conceptual movie — starring Alicia Vikander — that doubled as the soundtrack for their surprise new LP.
As announced by the buzzsaw drone as the start of opener ‘You Had Your Soul With You’, the album is classic National: catchy, abrasive, experimental and familiar.
Next comes singer Matt Berninger, with that angst- swelling croon, though he has to share the spotlight as former David Bowie Gail Ann Dorsey bassist takes over for the chorus.
It’s stunning — though very much of a piece with the slice-of-life tapestries that have lately become their stock in trade. The sometimes uneasy counterpoint to Berninger’s top-draw mopeyness is, as ever, provided by instrumentalist siblings Bryce and Aaron Dessner, blending spit and sawdust indie with avant-garde formalism.
This is perhaps The National’s most collaborative project yet. Long-time live guest vocalist Lisa Hannigan joins for lulling banjo number, ‘So Far, So Fast’, and ‘The Pull of You’ (which also features Sharon Van Etten).
There are cameos, too, from This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables and French folk singer Mina Tindle.
Going in, it’s important to be aware I Am Easy To Find isn’t a brave new dawn for The National.
This is a band essentially turning itself into its own side project, yielding a record in no hurry to win you over but which instead casts a spell slowly and inexorably. It’s a minor-key delight — but a delight all the same.