“I think everybody was ready to take a hiatus, pull the shades down for a year or so,” The National frontman Matt Berninger tells Apple Music of his band’s state of mind at the end of their tour for 2017’s Grammy-winning Sleep Well Beast. “Everyone in the band was exhausted and had no intention of diving back into a record at all. But Mike Mills showed up and had an idea, and then the idea just kept getting more exciting.” Mills—the Oscar-nominated writer and director behind 20th Century Women, and not, it can’t be stressed enough, the former R.E.M. bassist—reached out to Berninger with the intention of maybe directing a video for the band, but that soon blossomed into a much more ambitious proposition: Mills would use some tracks that didn’t find their way onto Sleep Well Beast as the springboard for a short film project.
That film—also called I Am Easy to Find—features Oscar winner Alicia Vikander portraying a unnamed woman from birth to death, a life story told in picaresque black-and-white subtitled snippets, to the swells of The National’s characteristically dramatic music. Those subtitles in turn informed new songs and inspired the band to head from touring straight into making another full album, right when they should have had their toes in sand. “All the song bits and lyric ideas and emotional places and stuff that we were deep into all went into the same big crock pot,” Berninger says. “We knew there would be a 25-minute film and a record, but it's not like one was there to support or accompany the other.”
Just as the film is about nothing more and nothing less than an examination of one person’s entire existence, the album is The National simultaneously at their most personal and most far-flung. Don’t be fooled by the press photos showing five guys; though the band has been increasingly collaborative and sprawling over its two-decade run, never has the reach of the National Cinematic Universe been so evident. Berninger is still nominally the lead singer and focal point, but on none of the album’s 16 tracks is he the only singer, ceding many of the album’s most dramatic moments to a roster of female vocalists including Gail Ann Dorsey (formerly of David Bowie’s band), Sharon Van Etten, Kate Stables of This Is the Kit, Lisa Hannigan, and Mina Tindle, with additional assists from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Berninger’s wife Carin Besser, who has been contributing lyrics to National songs for years, had a heavier hand. Mills himself serves as a hands-on producer, reassembling parts of songs at will with the band’s full blessing, despite never having done anything like that before in his life.
Despite this decentralization, it still feels like a cohesive National album—in turns brooding and bombastic, elegiac and euphoric, propelled by jittery rhythms and orchestral flourishes. But it is also a busy tapestry of voices and ideas, all in the name of exploring identity and what it means to be present and angry and bewildered at a tumultuous time. “There's a shaking off all the old tropes and patterns and ruts,” Berninger says. “Women are sick and tired of how they are spoken about or represented. Children are rebelling against the packages that they're forced into—and it's wonderful. I never questioned the package that I was supposed to walk around in until my thirties.”
The album’s default mood is uneasy lullaby, epitomized by the title track, “Hairpin Turns,” “Light Years,” and the woozily logorrheic, nearly seven-minute centerpiece “Not in Kansas.” This gravity makes the moments that gallop, relatively speaking—“Where Is Her Head,” the purposefully gender-nonspecific “Rylan,” and the palpitating opener “You Had Your Soul with You”—feel all the more urgent.
The expanded cast might be slightly disorienting at first, but that disorientation is by design—an attempt to make the band’s music and perspective feel more universal by working in concert with other musicians and a film director. “This is a packaging of the blurry chaos that creates some sort of reflection of it, and seeing a reflection of the chaos through some other artist's lens makes you feel more comfortable inside it,” says Berninger. “Other people are in this chaos with me and shining lights into corners. I'm not alone in this.”