The National, "I Am Easy to Find" (4AD)
The new album from The National starts off as you might expect: There's the traditional melancholy surrounded by complex, layered instruments. But just past the two-minute mark on the first track something unusual happens.
A woman's voice simply takes over.
Gail Ann Dorsey, known for playing in David Bowie's band, steps up as singer Matt Berninger fades, and the two sing in harmony until the abrupt end of "You Had Your Soul With You."
It's no quirk: Women's voices are all over "I Am Easy to Find," a more dense, challenging and complex album than any other National output. This isn't a collection of alt-rock songs. This is high art.
The album is produced by filmmaker Mike Mills, who directed "20th Century Women," and it's accompanied by a 26-minute film by Mills starring Alicia Vikander, who also graces the album cover. The album and film, which uses six tunes, are described as "playfully hostile siblings."
The film charts the life of a woman from baby to death and, fittingly, The National invite female singers — Dorsey, Mina Tindle, Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten, Kate Stables and Eve Owen — to join on the 16-track set.
Their voices — plus the addition of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus on several tracks — elevate material that's already elevated to a baroque level. Fans of The National will gleefully scale their chilly, arty new heights; newcomers may get turned off quick. "I Am Easy to Find" is not to be embraced; it is to be admired.
Lyrically, there is Berninger's old sad-sack approach — "I'm just so tired of thinking about everything," he sings on "Quiet Light." But there's also the strange and wonderful "Not In Kansas," a memory song that name-checks Annette Bening, R.E.M., Neil Armstrong and his Aunt Angela. There are few musicians out there with his gift for words: "Smidges of bad ecstasy/Must have left it in my pocket/With my Christianity and my rocket."
Other highlights include the brilliant, swelling "Rylan"; the airy "Oblivions," with strings and military drumming; and the achingly beautiful "Light Years," built around a simple piano riff.
In other places The National get too pretentious for their own good, like on the tedious "Dust Swirls in Strange Light." But there's no denying the band's astonishing care and thoughtfulness; it's easy to find.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits