For all intents and purposes, Matt Berninger is a New Yorker. Though not born in the Big Apple, he moved to Brooklyn in 1996 and has written a bevy of songs about the five boroughs, “Daughters of the Soho Riots,” “The Geese of Beverly Road,” and “Born to Beg” standing out the most, the latter of which features the prophetic line, “New York is older and changing its skin again / It dies every 10 years and then it begins again.”
He’s been there long enough to write about the city with authority. So when he sings “You were never much of a New Yorker / It wasn’t in your eyes,” alongside This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables on the title track of The National’s new album, I Am Easy to Find, he knows what he’s talking about. Hinting at a similar idea that Craig Finn explored in full on his new solo record, I Need a New War, Berninger discusses,not only what it’s actually like to live in New York, but what it means to be a New Yorker.
But for the first time in quite a while, Berninger went back to his hometown of Cincinnati on “Not in Kansas,” I Am Easy to Find’s keystone track. Instead of writing about his negative memories of the place (“I never married but Ohio don’t remember me” he sang on 2010’s “Bloodbuzz Ohio”), he experienced firsthand how both he and the Midwest had changed, particularly since the election of Donald Trump, launching into a full and abstract stream of consciousness about his journey home. “But I’m leaving home and I’m scared that I won’t / Have the balls to punch a Nazi / Father, what is wrong with me?” Berninger says at one point, echoing the end of verse one: “My bedroom is a stranger’s gunroom / Ohio’s in a downward spiral / Can’t go back there anymore / Since alt-right opium went viral.”
Berninger has always been particular about his word choice, but here we see him take this to an extreme. He allows himself to be more verbose and outwardly political than usual and deeply exploring how his hometown has succumbed to Fox News propaganda, unrecognizable even from the place he hated growing up. “Not in Kansas” sounds like the typical late-era National track, propelled by a gorgeous isolated guitar, Berninger’s morose baritone, and a beautiful string arrangement. But it’s undoubtedly their most profound track, one that weaves through complex and occasionally direct imagery and can be endlessly analyzed through an exceptionally close read and still find something new in its wordplay upon each listen. For that alone, “Not in Kansas” may be The National’s finest moment throughout their eight LPs.
It may seem extraneous to speak at length about only one of the 15 tracks on this hour-long record a single song on an hour-plus record with 15 others, but the truth is that nearly every single track on here deserves this sort of examination. This is the logical endpoint of a band perfecting a sound they’ve been searching for since 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, perhaps the crowning achievement of their storied career. And they did it by allowing backing instrumentalists and great classical composers in their own right Aaron and Bryce Dessner to have more freedom than ever (this is the first album where they are given sole musical credit for every song) and for Matt Berninger, the band’s central figure, to cede center stage to an array of children’s voices (the haunting harmonies of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus) and female vocalists, including Stables, Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan and more. Unlike past releases, I Am Easy to Find extends this collaborative aesthetic even further, showcasing the band’s overall vision for this album in a Mike Mills-directed/Alicia Vikander-starring short film of the same name, which in turn influenced the scope of the resulting album itself as Berninger mentioned during a recent Q&A.
From the plucky and frenzied guitars on lead single “You Had Your Soul With You” to the pulsating percussion of fan-favorite “Rylan” to the dazzling orchestral strings on album closer “Light Years” (another track that could be argued as one of The National’s best to date), I Am Easy to Find doesn’t radically change the formula they developed over the past couple of releases, but it nearly perfects it, resulting in a record as elegant as the suits Berninger routinely wears onstage. Rarely, if ever, do bands set forth a record this accomplished about 20 years into their careers. But, as has been the case upon nearly every release since Alligator, The National have put out another album that could easily be argued as their best—and it may be easier to make that claim now than ever before.