The other day a critic on Pitchfork brought up an interesting concept, one that has lingered on my mind for the past few weeks. They introduced this in a review of the new album by Local Natives, “Violet Street.” The quote was as follows:
“A collaboration with the director Van Alpert and visual artist Public-Library on the video for the Shawn Everett-produced single “Café Amarillo” puts Local Natives just one degree of separation from Post Malone, Drake, Kacey Musgraves, and Nike, rather than Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes. But that kind of development is part of the inevitable gentrification that comes with long-term success.”
As I read the rest of the article and played a few of the new Local Natives songs, I couldn’t help thinking about the natural (or inevitable?) gentrification of a band, a path that has transformed many trailblazing outsiders into somewhat pedestrian members of the mainstream pop community.
The idea hit home as I put on Chicago’s first record, “Chicago Transit Authority,” from way back in 1969. As wailing guitar riffs and experimental arrangements churned out of my speakers, I suddenly felt that gap of time between this experimental, fully-alive album and the unabashed adult contemporary sounds of Chicago 16 in the early 80s. The heaviness of it shook me for a moment, and I clearly saw how those righteous jazz rockers of the late 60s had found themselves wearing shoulder padded blazers and churning out cheesy stadium ballads.
That’s why the sight of The National in their new finely curated, black-and-white video takes me aback. Whatever edge the band ever had seems to be lost. At first glance, had thought that their last effort, “Sleep Well Beast,” was the beginning of a new, exciting era for the band, like the way that Radiohead has so effortlessly redefined themselves over the last two decades. Based on their new record “I Am Easy to Find,” this doesn’t seem to be so.
By all appearances The National have fully gentrified, and to be honest it feels like the end of an era. It’s the time when longtime fans cringe as the sounds become wider and farther-reaching, when you start hearing the band at grocery stores and health clubs, and when you suddenly can’t afford tickets to their concerts anymore. For a band that has often appealed to those looking for a salve to the day-to-day victories and struggles of normal life, this gentrification makes some sort of strange sense. The same generation that has grappled with soul-sucking jobs and broken relationships to the soundtrack of The National are now middle aged and wealthy, trading in late night rock shows for corporate promotions and board meetings.
But this turns out to be a problem for The National. It’s hard to gentrify without losing something. One of the first singles off the album, “You Had Your Soul With You” is like The National without their teeth. Aligning with an album-wide theme of siphoning off vocal duties to a league of women singers, it sparkles inside a soft production, one that finally sands off any grit that The National had left. Even Berninger’s voice has lost some of its breadth.
The gloss, the shimmer doesn’t stop there. The beats are still jagged, the pianos emotionally heavy, but something imperceptible has been lost. There are still songs that capture the heartstrings and refuse to let go. “Quiet Light” is one of them, managing to propel the listener into a sort of energetic trance through most of the song. Closer “Light Years” is another wonder, reaching into a deep well of frustration and discovering a powerful metaphor for the emotional distance that plagues so many of us later in life.
The result is that we get 64 minutes of uneven results on “I Am Easy to Find”. Everything here sounds mostly The National we all know. “Roman Holiday” features the same hard-hitting beats catapulting Berninger’s strained lyrics forward. The female voice here, though, breaks the band’s usual spell. The National have always circled around Berninger’s one-of-a-kind vocal delivery and brooding personality. Introducing a new voice casts these songs in a whole new light, one that is sometimes a bit jarring.
Other songs, such as the pop anthem “Oblivions” doesn’t feel very far off from the moody piano rock that you can hear on the Top 40 at times. It’s generally forgettable and among a number of throwaway tracks on this record.
There are also muddied, incoherent songs like “The Pull of You,” which can’t be saved by a Berninger monologue and pales in comparison to the title track from “Sleep Well Beast,” a song that felt like a dark, internal daydream of consciousness. This effort feels underwhelming.
“Hairpin Turns” mumbles around gauzy piano chords and a generally more reserved composition. “What are we going through, you and me?” Berninger sings, “Every other house on the street’s burnin’ / What are we going through, wait and see / Days of brutalism and hairpin turns.” It’s a soft and comfortable song, but it’s one of the few that benefits from The National’s new, more delicate direction.
Yes, the album may be daring, but not in the way that “Sleep Well Beast” was. That album challenged the typical sound of The National by incorporating in heavy-hitting electronics and angelic choirs of female voices, enough to make Berninger expand his range and discover new ways of getting across his emotionally ravaged lyrics. Songs such as “I’ll Still Destroy You” and “Dark Side of The Gym” found that perfect balance point between their post-punk roots and electronic explorations, a balance that is way off kilter here.
The problem here isn’t what the band is doing, but how they deliver it. Berninger’s voice sounds airbrushed at times, as if every gruff exhalation has been transformed into sweet tones by production magic. The introduction of female voices across a wide swath of the record, not a bad idea in itself, feels confusing when you actually hear it. Sans Berninger, the band almost sounds like it could be any other electronically-enhanced, emotionally-scarred pop act.
Still, there are moments of magic here. The title track is one of the best on the record. The austere electronics allow for Berninger’s desperate lyrics to come to the forefront, and this track is one of the few where it feels as if Berninger’s duet with a female voice really works, with his deep rumblings complementing the serene higher pitches of the female voice. The next track, “Her Father in the Pool”, finds The Brooklyn Youth Chorus granting us a too-short respite from the bombastic onslaught of sound that “I Am Easy to Find” has become.
“Dust Swirls in Strange Light” is an interesting composition, and sounds like if you mashed together a Dessner chamber composition with Bryan Devendorf’s typical frantic drum play. It’s invigorating enough, but would benefit from a little more subtlety.
Also worth noting: The filmmaker Mike MIlls made a short film that accompanies the record. He also produced the album. Was this where their path diverted, where they began sanding off their edges? Who knows, but the collaboration with a well-known director seems to have signaled the completion of the band’s gentrification. Vanity Fair says they’ve reached middle age, but I think that’s being a little nice. Like that street that was once edgy and unpredictable, everything looks similar, but has fundamentally changed on some level.
Welcome to The National, version 2.0, art pop wunderkinds and well-dressed post-punk savants. Like it or not, it seems like this version of one of America’s favorite 00s bands is here to stay.