The National Embrace New Perspective, Enjoy Familiar Results

Working with a collection of female vocalists “a breath of fresh air” for venerable indie group.

Photo by Graham Macindoe

Few bands have honed a sound and approach more recognizable and renowned than The National.

Twin guitarists and multi-instrumentalists Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner compose moody, striking sonic structures, avoiding big riffs while still delivering cathartic release. Bassist Scott Devendorf and drummer Bryan Devendorf (also brothers, though not twins) deliver propulsive, immediate tempos, giving the songs an urgent feel, despite their somber undertones.

The focal point, however, has always been vocalist Matt Berninger, whose wine-soaked baritone and tales of white boy blues comprise the unique signature of the band. It has been an oddly winning formula for a band whose last five albums, starting with 2005’s Alligator through 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, all garnered near universal critical acclaim while elevating the band into levels of mass fame enjoyed by few, if any, indie rock bands.

Then they decided to mess with success. And somehow, they pulled it off.

For the group’s latest album, this year’s I Am Easy to Find, Berninger cedes the spotlight to an array of guest female vocalists, providing a fresh perspective and stirring new interpretation of The National’s delivery. On every track, Berninger yields or shares vocal duties, either with his cadre of female companions (who include Sharon Van Etten and Lisa Hannigan, among others) or with the Brooklyn Children’s Choir.

“This whole experience has really been a breath of fresh air, especially for Matt,” says Scott Devendorf of the National, who will perform at Stanford’s Frost Amphitheater on Sept. 1. “He’s always been responsible for all the vocals for this group, and this is a way for him to share that experience. We viewed this as a great way to move forward creatively with the band, not just in the studio, but in our live setup. I don’t think there was any hesitancy to go in the direction we did.”

The idea to incorporate so many different vocalists came as a result of a unique collaboration with filmmaker Mike Mills, who approached the band about producing a music video for a single off Sleep Well Beast. Because the band had already released a steady number of tracks for the album, they declined his offer, but opted to move forward with a longer, mini-film project.

The result was a stirring 26-minute vignette starring actress Alicia Vikander. Mills used some of The National’s existing music, but most of the film features tunes from I Am Easy to Find — songs inspired by the picture, which depicts Vikander as a protagonist dealing with issues related to family, love, fractured relationships, illness, and death.

“We didn’t really plan on putting out an album this year, but we were inspired from what we saw in Mike’s film,” Scott Devendorf says. “We have four or five songs written already but seeing the early working versions of the film really spurred us on. At that point, some of the ideas cross-pollinated, with the lyrics being inspired by what was on that film. And based on what we saw, it didn’t make sense to have one male viewpoint act as the narrator for this woman’s life.”

The album is just the latest triumph for a band defined by its improbability. Following the relative lackluster reaction to the group’s third album, 2005’s Alligator (an absolute masterpiece of a record), the band was playing to thinning crowds, and increasingly considering returning full-time to their day jobs in New York City. But the unexpected breakout of 2007’s Boxer revived the band’s career and they have not glanced back since.

Boxer, a brooding recollection of middle-class malaise, solidified the band’s aesthetic, which could be best described as running full speed in a suit, briefcase in hand, late to a divorce proceeding. Somehow it works.

“When we first started, we didn’t put that much weight in the band,” Scott Devendorf says. “It was exciting living in New York City and playing music, but we all assumed we would end up returning to our jobs at some point. That helped us, because we weren’t over-conscious — we weren’t really concerned about being something else, or some other band. We were just trying to be our own thing, and that has been our focus all along.”

A band finding its creative stride midway through its career and standing out among an army of contemporaries (remember this was New York in the early 2000s, perhaps the most prodigious creative point in the city’s illustrative history) is the stuff of movies — just not the movie for The National.

Instead, they opted to champion a project that features not one of their faces or images during its runtime. It is wholly reflective of a band whose humility and deprecation belie an innate knack for delivering connective, beautiful, and timely art.

“It helps to have perspective,” Scott Devendorf says. “We all realized that the band is not everything — we have lives, families, other things outside of this world. We’re really just happy and lucky to still be making music we love.”

I Am Easy to Find is an interesting album title for a band content to stay in the shadows. But really it is just the latest improbable success for a band that has — improbably — earned everything they deserve. 

The National with Alvvays, Sunday, Aug. 31, 6:30 p.m. at Frost Amphitheater, 351 Lasuen St., Stanford, $60; https://live.stanford.edu/venues/frost-amphitheater

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