2019 Music Essays

On Reaching Outward for Understanding in The National’s ‘I Am Easy to Find’

A human life plays out in competing waves and cycles, an ebb and flow of circumstance and coincidence. Its effects are felt out in a solid and tangible world, but its memories are ephemeral — waves and cycles become emotions and echoes. In collaboration with director Mike Mills, Cincinnati rock band The National has endeavoured to bring this notion to bear in their latest project I Am Easy to Find, which constitutes a 63-minute album and a 27-minute short film.

It is an ambitious and sweeping undertaking for a band that has built a reputation over 20 years as masters of introspection, with the group’s greatest successes rooted deeply in the personal and the specific both through obtusely literate lyrics and intensely intimate instrumentation. But, with Mills’ steady hand guiding the ship, The National’s quintessential specificity explodes outwards into something headily universal.

Mills, who directs the short, has established himself as a filmmaker with a curious and empathetic eye. His 2010 breakout Beginners fictionalises his own experiences of his elderly father coming out as gay following the death of his mother. In portraying his father’s seemingly sudden revelation onscreen, Mills takes care to reach a place of understanding beyond the initial confusion and resentment his cypher, played by Ewan McGregor, feels. From his position as a heterosexual man, Mills opens himself up to perspectives divergent from his own – a trait that would feed directly into his joyous ode to womanhood 2016’s 20th Century Women.

It is his 2016 venture whose modus operandi most directly translates into I Am Easy to Find, which depicts the life of an unnamed woman from birth to death, portrayed at all ages by Alicia Vikander. Without personal context for the specifically-female experiences of his protagonist, Mills instead observes his subject with reverence, fascination and appreciation. What bridges the gap between specificity and universality across the piece is this enthusiastic curiosity, which draws away from the minutiae of Vikander’s character’s day-to-day into the subjective fog of emotion and memory, where narrative is subsumed by a purer sense of feeling that allows the short to converse directly with the album it runs alongside.

While both works are capable of standing alone, it is in the overlap that the richness of this collaborative work is drawn out. In some ways, the short may be considered cynically as a glorified trailer for the album, but in attentively consuming both pieces, it becomes the minor differences and conflicts that enrich what both the visuals and the songs have in common.

Versions of a handful of songs from the album are heard over the action of the film, though these are reworkings, reimaginings and subtle subversions of the original audio. The album hinges on the introduction of female voices to The National’s repertoire of sounds, with appearances from one-time David Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, songwriter Sharon Van Etten and This Is The Kit frontwoman Kate Stables among the roster the band brings in to converse, compete with and at times entirely overwhelm the gravelly croon of singer Matt Beringer. Across the short film, the vocal parts distributed to male and female voices tend to completely mirror those taken in the album versions of the tracks, which serves to blur the lines of gender across the project when considered as a complete piece and play further into the hazy subjectivity of a life remembered.

This merging perhaps reaches its apex on the album centrepiece “Where Is Her Head,,” which epitomises the disparate theses put forward by The National and Mills. A swirling, cyclical cavalcade of vocal blends the voices of Beringer and guest Eve Owen as the inquisitive carousel of lines spills forward — “Is she outside? Is she looking out? Is she standing up? Where are her hands? Where are her eyes? Where are her feet? Where’s her head?” Pushing the idea of Mills’ and the band’s male curiosity of the female experience, the song’s lyrics become a touchstone for the short’s narrative, as fragments of memory show Vikander as a little girl listening to her father read the same lines from a storybook.

Known for his self-immolating, deeply melancholy lyrical tendencies, Beringer has long stood tall as the sole voice at the heart of The National’s sound. In relenting vocal control to his female collaborators, and even some lyrical control to his wife Carin Besser, who scribed six of the album’s tracks, he acquiesces to the folly of the masculine default. As a project, I Am Easy to Find reveals itself as a conscious coming-together of the sexes in an attempt to understand something deeper at the heart of humanity.

Mills’ directorial endeavours are equally overwhelmed and strengthened by the presence of Vikander, whose deeply physical performance conveys age and emotion through movement alone, with some assistance from production designer Victoria Morris’ evocatively timeless costuming. Pure and wide-eyed, the actress makes as wholly a believable two-year-old as she does when hunched and weary in old age, without any prosthetic or make-up assistance.

In hingeing their album so intently on a visual accompaniment, The National has put a lot of faith in Mills’ and Vikander’s collective ability to convey the emotions at the heart of their songs onscreen, and through the crisp grayscale cinematography and the sharp, shrewd commitment to image over situation, it’s a success. The use of captions to “explain” fragmented moments as they rush by could teeter dangerously close to being rote, but as themes of arguing lovers and curious children loop back on themselves, other subtitles add unexpected nuance or sadness to seemingly innocuous frames — as with the text which painfully augments an image of Vikander’s girl laughing in her mother’s lap.

The National’s trademark aesthetic is ideal to capture the aching melancholy of a normal life lived in full, but the most remarkable achievements on the album are the unexpected tweaks or edits to what listeners have come to expect over six previous albums. Some indulgences are shorn away, as the balladry of “Oblivions,” starker than usual, or the unexpectedly-direct references to pop culture and contemporary politics on a track like “Not In Kansas” exemplify. This is The National reaching a little further out into the crowd, hoping to take your hand and find common ground.

Ultimately, I Am Easy to Find has all the hallmarks of an overindulgent vanity project for its male creators — another paean to life itself to throw on the scrap heap. What is crucial to its success is the way Mills and The National reach outward just as much as they do inward, using one woman’s painfully ordinary life to commemorate the differences and the commonalities that define the waves, cycles, memories and echoes of human life.

Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.

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