I love to think that I have a wide musical taste but looking again at my list of albums I’ve bought this year, there is a certain familiar common theme to a lot of them. Courtney Marie Andrews, Suzzy Boggus, Bonny Light Horsemen, Drive By Truckers, Steve Earle, Kathleen Edwards, Frazey Ford and that’s only got to F in the alphabet. I realise that I like familiar sounds and have not always been willing to experiment. Interestingly, one artist which is outside my comfort zone is Justin Vernon and his album “22 A Million” (as Bon Iver) is not like a lot of other music I have but invariably I don’t challenge myself to find something which sounds different. However, I bought “i,i” by Bon Iver last year and have not played it because I didn’t like the first couple of tracks. They didn’t sound like the sort of thing I like.
The same is true with my TV watching. I don’t really like Science Fiction but this year I have watched “Star Trek Discovery” and “Picard” because they hark back to the Nineties. I don’t like TV shows where there is no sympathetic character so I never watched “The Sopranos” and never give Mike Leigh plays a chance. I like to think I’m open minded but I need to challenge myself more.
The same is also true with books. I have read a lot of books about The Beatles and when I can’t find a book to read, I buy something by someone who used to know The World’s Best Group. I’ve devoured books by Geoff Emerick, Tony Barrow, Tony Bramwell and Derek Taylor which all tell basically the same story. When I can’t find a podcast that I might like, I revert to a Beatles podcast. Where’s the challenge?
Every month I get UNCUT and MOJO and I look at the reviews of new albums. I look at them but I read very few. I only read a review if I’ve heard of the artist. How do I find new music? Occasionally I will look at a review that gets the full page treatment and I might buy it on account of that but only if looks like the sort of thing I would like. Where’s the challenge?
The abrupt change to my life over the last nine months has seen a small change of attitude, mainly brought on by Peter but also some comments left after I’ve posted something. I have explored Alan Stivell, Wishbone Ash and The National as a direct result of people leaving comments. Peter has encouraged me to explore music that I normally would have ignored including St. Vincent, Modern Nature, Garcia Peoples, Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers. The last two of these fit nicely into my comfort zone but the others have widened my horizons slightly. I intend to be more adventurous in my musical adventures in the future and I’m prepared to listen to an album that isn’t immediately appealing in the hope that I will learn to love it. For every Thundercut, there will be a BC Camplight. For every Moses Sumney, there will be a Frazey Ford.
It reminds me when Roo and I met up with some friends, quite a few years ago now, and they asked us to choose a pub midway between where we lived. Roo and I looked in the AA book of Good Pubs and suggested somewhere which turned out to be terrible. Roo and I put it down to experience and adopted the attitude of “you win some you lose some”. Our friends were aghast that we’d made this mistake and I think they would have been happy to go to a “Brewers Fayre” because “at least you know what you’re getting”. These were friends who, when they went on a short break to Brussels, ate in a McDonalds. The same is true with TV programmes, books and music. I need to challenge myself more and I won’t enjoy the thrill of discovering something completely new unless I’m prepared to put up with some disappointment.
This has been the thrill of “Album Club” with Peter this year. The latest thrill is “I Am Easy To Find” by The National. I was encouraged to listen to The National by “Gee” who recently added this comment about “evermore” by Taylor Swift. “She’s shucked off the pop princess persona and she’s developed into a mature singer songwriter, though I find the tracks above a little bland and uninspiring. The real motivation behind this comment is to encourage you to give The National a try. They take a bit of getting into sometimes but it’s worth the time investment. They do a great live show too – I saw them in Brighton last year, a fantastic gig.” He was absolutely right in that they do take a bit of getting into but, even though I’ve only been listening to it for a few days, I now love this album – it’s the only one by The National that I’ve listened to. Now I’ve only got seven more albums by them to explore.
Discovering seemingly hidden complexities in music is part of the enjoyment. Let’s take what appears to be a gentle acoustic number, the title track, “I Am Easy To Find”. Matt Berninger is the lead vocalist with The National and he sings a duet on this song with Kate Stables. Richard and I went to see Kate Stables when she performed in Brighton – she performs as “This Is The Kit” which is not the same as “First Aid Kit” who are a pair of Swedish female singers. Kate Stables is British, lives in Paris, has released five albums and sings on three songs of this album. Matt Berninger has said that this song is about how, when you are feeling lost and isolated, it’s possible to connect. At one point, Matt Berninger and Kate Stables sing “Towers to the skies, an academy of lies” which is a direct lift from a song called “Echoes Myron” by Guided By Voices. I’m not sure that knowing all this background is essential to the enjoyment of the song.
Even more complex is the song “Not In Kansas”. Again, Matt Berninger doesn’t sing all the lyrics. This time, three singers, Kate Stables, Gail Ann Dorsey and Lisa Hannigan sing two verses. Gail Ann Dorsey played bass with David Bowie for twenty years until his death. She has also released three albums. Lisa Hannigan is an Irish singer who has released three albums. She sung “Black Eyed Dog” in a Nick Drake tribute show put on by Joe Boyd at The Brighton Dome; it was one of very few good moments in the concert. The way this song developed is that Aaron Dessner, one of the members of The National, sent Matt Berninger an instrumental track to listen to, which he did whilst walking around what he describes as a Danish town, North of Los Angeles (possibly the town is called Solvang). As he listened to the music, he started writing what ended up as a 34 verse song. He sent this back to Aaron Dessner who cut it down to 17 verses and inserted a cover of a song called “Noble Experiment” by Thinking Fellas Union Local 282 in the middle of the song – it’s this part which is sung by the three female singers. Thinking Fellas Union Local 282 are an experimental indie rock group from San Francisco, formed in 1986. The other lyrics to this song refer to Hanne Darboven (a German conceptual artist), “The Godfather”, The Strokes, “Infidels” by Bob Dylan, “Heartbreak Beat” by The Psychedelic Furs, “Begin The Begin” by R.E.M., Richard Spencer (an American Nazi), Neil Armstrong and Roberta Flack. Again, I don’t need to know any of this information to be able to just listen to the song and enjoy the sound of it.
The genesis of this album was Mike Mills approaching the band and suggesting that he make a film about the emotional journey a woman takes in her entire life. Confusingly, Mike Mills is a film maker and is not the same Mike Mills who was a member of R.E.M. The idea was that “the movie was composed like a piece of music; the music was assembled like a film, by a film director” and the result was a 25 minute arthouse movie starring Alicia Vikander (a Swedish actress) with Gail Ann Dorsey, Eve Owen, Diane Sorel, Mina Tindle, Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten, Kate Stables and Brooklyn Youth Chorus assisting as guest vocalists. It’s an amazing film and I particularly love the fact that the focus is on the feelings, memories and emotions of the main protagonist as her life unfolds.
The fourth song on the album is called “Oblivions” and it is used a lot in the film. Matt Berninger has said that the song is about the commitment that we make when we marry. We don’t know what marriage is truly like until we experience it. The song is a duet sung with Mina Tindle who is a French singer and is married to Bryce Dessner. She asks herself whether he expects her to travel with him into oblivion, simply because she trusts him. In the end she decides that this is okay because she loves him. As on most songs on this album, the drumming is very inventive.
There are five members of The National. Matt Berninger is the lead singer and he writes most of the lyrics to the songs. He sung a song called “Coney island” on “evermore” with Taylor Swift. He is married to Carrin Besser who co-wrote the lyrics to six of the songs on the album. Aaron Dessner and his twin brother Bryce Dessner both play guitars and keyboards. Aaron Dessner has produced albums by Taylor Swift, Sharon Van Etten, This Is The Kit and Lisa Hannigan. He is one half of a band called Big Red Machine along with Justin Vernon (Bon Iver). Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon curated the Eaux Claires Festival in 2018 to which they invited Anais Mitchell, Eric D Johnson and Josh Kaufman to form Bonny Light Horesman and the album they released early in 2020 is very good. Justin Vernon had previously collaborated with Anais Mitchell on the “Hadestown” album. Bryce Dessner is a prolific writer of orchestral, chamber, and vocal compositions; he also wrote several of the orchestrations for the two Taylor Swift albums released this year. The other two members of The National are the brothers Bryan Devendorf (drums) and Scott Davendorf (bass).
In addition, the following female singers appear on the album. Gail Ann Dorsey (David Bowie’s bass player for twenty years). Mina Tindle (French folk singer; married to Bryce Dessner). Lisa Hannigan (Irish singer. Her last album, “At Swim”, was produced by Aaron Dessner). Sharon Van Etten (American singer who made an album called Tramp” in 2012 which was produced by Aaron Dessner). Kate Stables (performs as This Is The Kit and released an album called “Bashed Out” in 2014 which was produced by Aaron Dessner). Eve Owen (daughter of English actor Clive Owen).
“Rylan” is a song that has been part of The National’s live set for almost eight years before finally getting a release on this album. Mike Mills liked the childlike nature of the song and included it in his film which encouraged the band to finally record it. The drumming is a bit like a lead instrument in the song although the melody, as sung by Matt Berninger is not especially memorable. However, the arrangement is sensational.
The opening song on the album is “You Had Your Soul With You”. As with so many songs on the album, the female voices give an extra texture to the sound of the song. Including so many female voices on the songs was a response to Mike Mills’ film. Matt Berninger said that the sound of his voice didn’t fit with the image of Alicia, the woman in the film.
The video for “Hairpin Turns” looks very simple. It was directed by Mike Mills and everything you see is a live performance. For example, when Matt Berninger is shown singing, that is a live performance but everything else we hear is from the recorded version. It’s a slow simple song and the singer is wondering where a relationship is going. The phrase “always arguing about the same things” appears in the film and makes me wonder whether every argument that Roo and I have is about the same thing. The potential for disconnection between partners is a common theme of the songs on the album.
I know nothing about the previous seven albums that The National have released. The review in MOJO makes reference to a previous sound incorporating “rattling, feral indie rock” and there’s no sign of that on this album. The same review calls drummer Bryan Devendorf “the most imaginative drummer currently operating in rock music”. Another review (in The Guardian) makes the point that there may not be any hummable tracks or even any standout songs but the overall effect of listening to the whole album is wondrous. There’s a continuity of sound which isn’t the same as saying that every song sounds the same. As with the Paul McCartney album, the production of the album is very sophisticated. There’s a lot going on; the lyrics are interesting, the performances are classy and the songs are well structured. A bit like Kirsty Merryn and Taylor Swift. I was always going to like The National. I just needed someone to shove me through the door.