The National’s New Voices

Aarik Danielsen

Over a span of 20 years, The National has established itself as one of the titanic forces in indie rock, washing over listeners with wave after wave of melancholy melody and swelling breakers of guitar.

What makes the band special, however, is not its independent status but its interdependence. The National’s sound is fastened and joined together to such a degree that removing a single piece would topple the whole thing. The band's relational reliance is burnished by having not one, but two sets of brothers. Drummer Bryan Devendorf specializes in propulsive rhythms that align every other element, forming a combustion engine of sorts with bassist Scott Devendorf. Meanwhile, Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s guitars interlace like lovers’ hands—one seems made to fit the other. Frontman Matt Berninger’s sad, slightly buzzed baritone remains the band’s calling card, but without his bandmates’ beautiful, churning playing, his vocals would find nowhere safe to stagger, then settle.

Style and substance work together, reliant music amplifying words reaching out for human touch. Across the band’s catalog, Berninger sings from inside a love hangover (“Slow Show”), expresses fatherly anxiety (“Afraid of Everyone”), declares financial and spiritual bankruptcy (“Bloodbuzz, Ohio”), lies in a bed made of American myths (“Fake Empire”), and masks failure by beating his chest in bravado (“Mr. November”). Sometimes his lyrics swerve toward codependence, but in every case Berninger confesses he can’t get by on his own.

The National’s interdependence finds its most elegant expression yet on its latest album, I Am Easy to Find. Chasing a truly egalitarian vision of common work, the band shares—and cedes —ground with a cohort of female vocalists, including Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, and longtime David Bowie collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey.

In its usual manner, the band creates spaces—some expansive, others rivaling the eye of a needle—for singers to fit into. In the album’s first bars, angular sonics and driving drums prepare the way for “You Had Your Soul with You.” Piano and drums rub together to create the delicate groove of “Quiet Light.” Living up to its title, Devendorf’s playing magnetizes the rest of the band on “The Pull of You.”

On these gorgeous tone poems, Berninger and company sing in and about intimacy and proximity. “I used to fall asleep to you talking to me / I don’t listen to anything now,” he sings on “Quiet Light.” “Nothing to do with us / I’m just so tired of thinking about everything / I’m not afraid of being alone / I just don’t know what to do with my time.”

“I’m your hospital / I’m your silver cross / Tell me what to be, tell me how to talk,” he sings at the outset of “Roman Holiday,” before referencing iconic artist duo Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, then twining his vocals with Dorsey’s.

On the sprawling masterpiece “Not in Kansas,” Berninger declares his dependence on pop culture. “I’m binging hard on Annette Bening / I’m listening to R.E.M. again / 'Begin the Begin,' over and over,” he sings at the end of a string of romantic non-sequiturs that would surely get Michael Stipe’s approval. Words like these slide between stations, from liberation to unhealthy attachment, but always affirm our nature as relational beings, as people who need a world full of others.

The National’s interdependence finds its most elegant expression yet on I Am Easy to Find.

For everything articulated by The National’s core, the album’s female vocalists create the album’s most brilliant emotional hues. Their harmonies insulate and complete Berninger’s melodies; more than once, they soothe the savage beast emerging from inside him. These guest singers engage sensitive moments of call-and-response, and make soulful, confident statements of their own. In atypical fashion, female singers sometimes take the mic first, or enjoy extended soliloquies. On “Her Father in the Pool” and “Underwater,” the Brooklyn Youth Chorus seizes the spotlight, piercing the record’s moodiness with the sort of colored, celestial light sealed within a stained-glass windowpane.

Some two thousand years ago, the Apostle Paul penned the most fulfilled, fulfilling declaration of interdependence. In 1 Corinthians 12, he asserts a simple biological truth with everlasting implications for the Church. Just as a human body isn’t composed solely of hands or feet, eyes or ears, Christ’s body requires members with varied gifts, experiences, and temperaments. Moving together, we tell the truth about our purpose and identity. Faithfully pooling our gifts, we accomplish more together than we ever could alone. Unified in our diversity, we boast of and revel in the savior who holds us together. Living in deep and wide community, we see a fuller picture of the image of the God who loves us.

Perhaps more than most bands, The National has always needed hands to stab at guitars, feet to press bass pedals, voices to croon, and ears to hear one another. But on I Am Easy to Find, the band revisits its own holy writ, expressing itself in language that imitates Paul. Each song seems to ask: If all were founding members of The National, where would the music be? To some, the band has become shorthand for a type of educated male privilege, an existential sort of “dad rock.” So perhaps the more important question I Am Easy to Find asks is: If all were white, male rockers, where would the collaboration be?

Bands have broken up over their share of the microphone and spotlight. Expressing a high level of need for one another—and for artists outside their immediate circle—The National has made a remarkably ego-less rock record, and sounded out a more excellent way.

Topics: Music