Not in Kansas: On The National’s “I Am Easy to Find”




I.

THE BRAVEST, MOST ROMANTIC lyric Matt Berninger has ever written comes from “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” the closing track on The National’s epic meditation on alienation and romantic despair, the 2010 album High Violet (a few song titles: “Terrible Love,” “Sorrow,” “Afraid of Everyone”). In the pre-chorus, Berninger sings over and over: “All the very best of us / String ourselves up for love.” The beat comes down hard on the word “best,” so you can’t miss the meaning: the thing in us that’s willing to kill ourselves for love, to “die so hard” for it (as their new album puts it) is actually the finest thing about us; love’s insane power is worth a practically suicidal pursuit.

There are those among us who will get off the bus right here: fuck that, you may say; nothing — especially love — is worth stringing myself up for. And, hey, it’s your life — you protect yourself any way you need to. But there are others who will get past the purplish (high violet) extravagance of the line, delve deeper into The National’s explorations of love and its many discontents, and see something beautiful there.

What’s more, Berninger has earned the right to say it: he’s been obsessed with the travails of romantic risk from the beginning of his songwriting career. It’s there on the band’s 2001 self-titled debut: though the music on that album is pretty derivative (and Berninger’s vocal melodies are, well, awful), his lyrics are already well shaped, concise, and directed at the sorrowful, chaotic, and occasionally ecstatic mysteries of two people trying to make a go of togetherness. On that record, there are five melancholic breakup scenes for every solid affirmation that love can work, that it can make us better, more unified souls. But it’s the affirmations you remember. Of course, five to one ain’t good odds, but that’s only to say that Matt Berninger’s affirmations are underwritten by what appears to be decades of romantic failure and existential confusion. Which makes the affirmations all the braver, romantic, and persuasive.

The National’s new album, I Am Easy to Find, is in many ways the culmination of Berninger’s Jacob-like wrestling with love’s mysteries, though it’s much more than that: it’s a marked expansion of the band’s musical and artistic ambitions, and a fascinating collaborative effort. The project began in 2017, when The National was getting ready to tour with their 2017 album, Sleep Well Beast. Director Mike Mills, indie auteur of deeply personal and poignant films such as Thumbsucker (2005), Beginners (2010), and 20th Century Women (2016), emailed Berninger and asked if he could work with the band in some capacity — maybe direct a video for a song on the new album. The band already had their videos set for Sleep Well Beast, so Berninger, an admirer of the nuanced emotional tones of Mills’s films, sent him a bunch of tracks that the band had lying around, some complete songs, some not. Mills listened to them and felt that pieces could be integrated with film ideas he had bouncing around in his head. From that tentative beginning emerged a collaboration that resulted in a 26-minute movie, also called “I Am Easy to Find” (available online). The film’s soundtrack includes snippets from those original pieces Berninger sent Mills, as well as additional music the band wrote after seeing rough cuts of the film. The National was so moved by what Mills was creating that they also wrote a whole new set of songs (loosely) inspired by the film. In turn, Mills listened to this new stuff and incorporated some of it into his movie. You don’t have to see the film to appreciate the album, or hear the album to enjoy the film, but they’re symbiotically linked: they helped birth each other.

Mill’s short film is simple, delicate, and dreamy, but it packs a potent emotional punch. I saw it at a special screening in April at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. There was a Q-and-A afterward with Mills, Berninger, fellow band member Bryce Dessner, and the film’s lead actress Alicia Vikander, followed by a concert by the band. Many in the audience were moved to tears. My eyes were welling up within five minutes, though I am not a crier at movies.

In stately black and white, the film, mostly silent and utilizing very little camera movement, consists of 128 tiny, titled segments, each lasting about five to 15 seconds. The segments chronicle the long life of a woman, from birth to death. “She is born,” reads the first title. “She watches dust swirl in the strange light,” reads another. “Aware that her body is separate,” reads yet another. Corresponding images stream by. But instead of presenting a baby in the first segment, and gradually giving us older infants and children as the film proceeds, a single actress, Vikander, plays the female protagonist throughout. On a plain white backdrop, she lies like an infant, or sits like a baby as she looks at the swirling dust in the air, and so on. The film somehow feels both totally realistic and mythical, as Mills keeps throwing more images and titles onto the screen: “Her mother’s laugh”; “Becoming aware of cruelty”; “She is ten now”; and so on. The images are plain, lovingly framed, and suggestive. They give plenty of space for the viewer to fill in the gaps with his or her own memories and desires. We watch Vikander, a 30-year-old actress, play an infant, child, teenager, young adult, then a middle-aged and finally elderly woman, so we’re meant to note a continuity of self, but as the film goes on, we’re continually surprised (she has an affair in middle age with another woman, for instance). We feel her separateness even from those she needs to feel most close to, and sense that her essence is gossamer-thin, an airy mystery not just to others but to herself. We hear her occasionally whisper-sing to herself, “I am easy to find,” but that’s the last thing she is.

The film dramatizes love and identity as will-o’-the-wisps, and that makes it just right as a collaboration, because The National’s music, preoccupied with love as it is, is fascinated by how love emanates from the mystery of separate lovers. And if the identity of the lovers is in question — if their identities are floating, uncertain, hidden both from themselves and the other — then how in the hell is love supposed to happen, and then endure?

II.

[H]is convictions of the harrowing separateness of people, the intractable privacy of men and women even in love, that everyone was not a solid identity but an actor trying to play the self [give his films the] sense of intimacy that most distinguishes [him] […] [He] insists on the truths of how people feel toward those they need to love […] Neither will he ignore the increasing moral paralysis and mental breakdown that follow from that truthfulness. Thus his films are intimate and extreme at the same time.

This is the great film historian David Thomson on director Ingmar Bergman, but change the word “films” to “songs” in the final line and, mutatis mutandis, this passage would fittingly describe Matt Berninger’s work with The National. Nearly every song on I Am Easy to Find — and maybe half the songs in The National’s entire oeuvre — could be named after a Bergman work: Scenes from a Marriage, Shame, Persona, Face to Face, Cries and Whispers. The prevailing scenario in Berninger’s lyrics centers on Person A, whose internal life is chaotic and confused, who is deeply and desperately in love with Person B, whose internal life is just as chaotic and confused. Both of them are mysteries to themselves, mercurial blobs of uncertain identity, but each needs the other to achieve the solidity that relieves them of their own chaos and existential confusion. The result is, as in mid-period Bergman, moral paralysis, mental breakdown, and, occasionally, breakthrough into resplendent, redemptive beauty.

The beauty of “I Am Easy to Find” is mostly supplied by its music. And here I should apologize for focusing so much on Berninger and his lyrics, because it’s the music — complexly plaintive, sad, but capable of building to gorgeous and majestic walls of sound — that provides the appropriate setting for Berninger’s melancholic explorations. (The compositions are mostly written by guitarist Aaron Dessner, arranged by his brother, Bryce Dessner, and played by them and brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf on, respectively, drums and bass. They also get substantial contributions from “touring members” Benjamin Lanz and Kyle Resnick, along with friends like Justin Vernon and Sufjan Stevens.) Aaron’s melodic figures and subtle harmonies sink into consciousness slowly, distracted as we are by the musical invention he lays densely into the mix, but once they reach us, they stick, and grow.

Bryce, who on stage plays piano, guitar, and electronics, has an MA from the Yale School of Music and was trained in the classical minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. (He has an entire side career working with classical musicians and composers; in addition he, along with his brother, curated and produced an astonishing five-CD box set called Day of the Dead, a 2016 homage to the Grateful Dead by everyone from The War on Drugs to Justin Vernon to The National themselves.) Bryce’s contributions, especially since the band’s big commercial breakthrough High Violet, have helped transform their sound from inventive but aurally conventional alt-rock to the unabashed synth-laden art rock they traffic in now. And the rhythm section of the Devendorf brothers expertly anchors songs that groove easily in 9/8 or 7/4 to 5/4 time signatures. Drummer Scott Devendorf in particular is crucial to the band’s sonic palette. On their third album, Alligator (2005), the drums were pushed to the front of the mix, and ever since, the wholly unpredictable and sometimes frenzied clatter of Devendorf’s percussion has served as a perfect analogue to the high anxiety of Berninger’s lyrics. Though most of the band’s songs are based on standard pop structures, they experiment with extended intros, long codas, and incongruous interpolations that can take a song to places far afield from where it began. (“Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “England,” and “Pink Rabbit” are great examples.)

This is a band whose sound, whose sense of itself, has evolved slowly: every album from their debut until High Violet was a leap in ambition and achievement, a steady coalescence of musical and lyrical intention. Since then, in Trouble Will Find Me (2013) and Sleep Well Beast, the band has reached a high plateau. They’ve earned enthusiastic accolades from critics, Grammys from the industry, number-one hits from the listening public. They’re one of the most respected bands in 21st-century rock music. Now, with I Am Easy to Find, they’ve made another leap. And it’s not just that they’ve consolidated their strengths, or collaborated with a simpatico filmmaker who inspired them, though all that helps. It’s because this band of five dudes, five Midwestern white men, has finally let women speak for themselves.

III.

When the band started sending over tracks for Mills to lay into the film, it occurred to them that Berninger’s voice — a very male, taciturn baritone that issues largely from the throat, not the lungs, and so screeches uneasily when he tries to go high or loud (for example, on “Mr. November,” “Turtleneck”) — wasn’t a good fit for a film that explores the interior life of a woman. So they brought in a number of female vocalists, including Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan, Kate Stables, Eve Owen, and Mina Tindle. As a result, the female voice is prominent on almost every track. These voices are as traditionally “feminine” as Berninger’s is “masculine” — high in register, softly vulnerable, “sensitive” — and they mesh beautifully with Alicia Vikander’s image onscreen. Their effect on the album is frankly stunning. This record gives (literally) equal voice to both genders, and so the songs become true dialogues, impassioned and often frightening, of confused and yearning women and men trying to get through to each other.

It must be said that, when it comes to The National’s lyrics (as opposed to their vocal performances), this gender parity has been going on for some time. Matt Berninger met his future wife, Carin Besser, around the time the band was making Alligator, on which she contributed a few backing vocals. On the following records, Boxer and High Violet, she was given credit for co-writing the lyrics on three songs. Starting with Trouble Will Find Me, the credits read: “lyrics by Matt Berninger with Carin Besser.” (If you check the band’s lyrics on Google, the credits are more specific — for instance, on I Am Easy to Find, Besser is given lyric credit for three songs.) Whatever the case, Besser, a former fiction editor at The New Yorker and now a film producer, has clearly influenced the band’s direction. (Other band members jokingly call her Yoko.) That influence has served to make Berninger’s lyrics more self-aware, inclusive, and honest, and on this record, it gives the songs a focus and unity they’ve never had before.

Berninger’s awareness of the female voice hits you on the very first track, “You Had Your Soul With You,” where his persona bemoans his inability to be there for his love when she has her “soul with [her].” It’s telling that she doesn’t always have her soul with her: evidently she frequently gets along without it, making her as big a mess as he is. But when she does have it, he regrets that “I was in no mood” and that, when he had a chance to connect with her, he didn’t: “I had only one thing to do and I couldn’t do it yet.” In the second verse, he expands on what having a “soul with you” might mean:

You felt like heaven stood up in you
You said love fills you out
It moves you from the skeleton and pulls you around

Still, isolated as he feels (“I had only one last feather left / I wore it on the island of my head”), he “couldn’t do it.” The music then crescendos into a spatter of snare drum, noisy keyboards, and the skitter of a frenetic guitar that calls to mind Vampire Weekend; then the noise suddenly drops away and we hear the creamy alto of Gail Ann Dorsey:

I have owed to my heart, every word I’ve said
You have no idea how hard I died when you left

As evocative as Berninger’s description of the woman’s soul is, we now see (and hear) it from the woman’s point of view, and it’s a whole new, painfully beautiful thing. In fact, the moment Dorsey starts to sing, the song — and the album — become something new for The National, a dynamic interplay of voices that makes the struggle between lovers more multifaceted and real.

This interplay builds throughout the album’s 16 compositions (it’s a 64-minute CD). Pick your track. There’s “Oblivions,” a guy-and-girl dialogue between Berninger and Mina Tindle that deals with a persistent sticking point between two lovers about to marry: the guy’s a blithe romantic who she fears isn’t solid enough to stick around (“Do you think you can carry me / Over the threshold / Over and over until oblivion?”); and even if he does, how will they manage to connect, since “I know I am easy to find but you know it’s never me”? (The lyrics are credited to Berninger and Carin Besser.) Or how about the next track, “The Pull of You” (also co-credited), which deconstructs the familiar metaphor of lovers being “connected by a thread / If we’re ever far apart / I’ll still feel the pull of you”? No sooner is the metaphor introduced than we get a dissociated internal monologue from the man that makes it clear he’s in no condition to hold up his end of the bargain. Following a beautiful verse from the male character wailing about his own untrustworthiness in relationships (“I know I can get attached and then unattached”), we get another spoken monologue, this time from the woman, which is almost as chaotic and only a bit more sane. By the song’s conclusion, both of them are admitting “[s]ometimes I don’t think I’m really around here at all.” And there you have it, the album’s bottom-line scenario: how are two broken people, existentially absent even from themselves, supposed to be with, let alone heal one another?

Well, sometimes they agree to lie to themselves. In “Roman Holiday,” over sleepy keyboards that create a sort of slugged, drugged atmosphere, two lovers urge each other to escape and delude themselves about their lives: “I’ll take away your shame […] we don’t feel the pain” — they know they’re deluded but do it anyway. In “Where Is Her Head,” a nerve-jangling percussion work-out, a female voice asks over and over, “Where are her hands? / Where are her eyes? Where is her head? What is she thinking?” — as if her very identity were being pulled apart as she sings. In response, the male voice panics: “I think I’m hittin’ a wall / I hate loving you as much as I do.” In “Hey Rosey,” a Berninger and Dorsey duo that’s given a faux-naïf arrangement (twinkly nursery sounds plus swooping strings), we get a pair of innocents: she begins by singing, “I’m your angel when it rains, dear”; at first, he agrees, before admitting that “I’m the rocks they weigh down the angels with.” Still, they can’t keep apart: “I will love you like there’s razors in it,” she sings, though in the very next line we learn that “she’ll love you like a radiant flame.” If your reaction to this swarm of contradictory emotion is “Ahhhhhhh!” — well, join the club — but Berninger’s final line, sung with wild-eyed earnestness, is perfect. “There’s never really any … safety in it,” which is both a truism about love and a reminder why it’s a truism: because it’s true.

I could go on. I Am Easy to Find is practically a concept album about it not being easy to find oneself, or one’s lover, in love. And though the theme gets hammered home in song after song, Aaron’s music and Bryce’s arrangements provide such lushly cushioned and varied frameworks for the words that it all feels fresh and transformative: the pained lovers are all embraced, forgiven, understood by the music. I Am Easy to Find sometimes employs the kind of choirs that you hear in cathedrals, but they’re never used ironically. Instead, they elevate and sanctify the suffering of the voices. This is the most redemptive of The National’s records.

IV.

I haven’t even mentioned what I think is the best song on the album. “Not in Kansas” fits into the album’s theme — the refrain keeps telling us, “I am not in Kansas / Where I am, I don’t know where” — but it goes further than the others. At almost seven minutes, it’s the longest song on the record, and it feels like spiritual autobiography. Over a bright and simple guitar riff that’s accompanied by nothing more than another quiet guitar and a muted violin, Berninger unfurls a long and rambling monologue about spiritual homelessness. The singer is “not in Kansas” in the standard ironic sense, but he’s also not in Ohio, where Berninger is from (“Ohio’s in a downward spiral / Can’t go back there anymore / Since alt-right opium went viral”).

Borrowing the grammar school melody from Jack White’s “We’re Going to Be Friends,” Berninger takes us through a childhood where he fantasized about becoming a priest, then lost his religious faith, turning to music and popular culture (R.E.M.’s 1986 album Lifes Rich Pageant is given two shout-outs). Along the way, there are vivid but fractured portraits of childhood events that suggest epiphanies (on a car ride, he listens to Roberta Flack and feels “eternally un-alone” — which is, of course, the feeling all the lovers on the album seek), as well as traumatic loss. And then there’s this: “Take me for a walk and blame this / On the water dripping from the spear.” This line, which gets repeated several times, could be one of Berninger’s purely private images, but as I listened, I kept thinking of Christ’s side being speared on the cross, water and blood rushing from the wound. Berninger is a highly intuitive writer (not to mention a lapsed Catholic), so I’m not sure he’s worked this out, but if that’s what he’s implying, it could mean that his spiritual confusion is the result of the crucifixion’s continuing astonishment for someone who has lost his faith.

But the power of “Not in Kansas” goes even beyond this: twice during the song, in the middle and then at the end, Berninger’s narrative ceases and we hear a female chorus sing about the coming end of the world (from perhaps nuclear war or climate catastrophe), when man’s reign on earth will finally cede itself to nature. The chorus makes that possibility sound like a welcome thing — an exhausted earth finally free of the species that tried to ruin it. The spiritual homelessness Berninger is singing about is now writ large as can be: it’s a song of big-hearted pathos.

I Am Easy to Find concludes with “Light Years,” a wistful piano ballad whose title measures the cosmic distance between the speaker and his lover. At first, the song feels like a summation of the album’s concept of lovers struggling to connect. But then comes the chorus, sung by Berninger alone:

Oh, the glory of it all was lost on me
’Til I saw how hard it’d be to reach you
And I would always be
Light years
Light years from you …

Now, if he means what the plain English says, the song is telling us that the “glory of it all” — the glory of being alive — only becomes clear to the speaker when he finally learns “how hard it’d be to reach you.” In other words, the glory of existence lies in acknowledging our terrible separation from ourselves and from one another, and in acknowledging the extraordinary drama, the human drama, that issues from that condition — the brave, romantic drama that is presented to us in albums and films like I Am Easy to Find.

¤

Cornel Bonca is professor of English at California State University, Fullerton.


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