There’s an ongoing struggle for women in music to be heard. The National didn’t set out, when writing their ninth LP, I Am Easy to Find, to become their allies— but after partnering with director Mike Mills (20th Century Women) on a film to accompany the album, it became apparent that this project needed women’s voices.
The addition of vocals from amazing women, including Sharon van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, Gail Ann Dorsey, Mina Tindle, Kate Stables, Eve Owen, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, elevate and broaden songs that could have been typically male-centred takes. The sound of women makes the National’s music, entrenched in a specific aesthetic over nearly two decades, into something fresh.
The gender-neutral sounds of Dorsey, long a member of David Bowie’s band, on “You Had Your Soul with You” brings clarity and poignancy to a song that might otherwise come across as terse. With Tindle’s contribution to “Oblivious,” a separation becomes a conversation between a man and a woman, tied to a sense of melancholy about the distance between the two — and the layered harmonizing of her softer, higher voice with singer Matt Berninger’s baritone voice is a revelation. “The Pull of You” starts with van Etten shifts into a literal conversation with masculine and feminine spoken word sections from van Etten, Berninger, and Hannigan.
It’s not difficult to integrate the voices of multiple women and points of view into the National’s template, and that may be in part due to the collaborators the band works with regularly, including Berninger’s wife, Carin, who’s co-written songs since 2007’s Boxer.
What makes the project truly feminist is the film that neither accompanies nor uses all of the music by Mills — it is a sister project pulling snippets from the album and its theme. Starring Alicia Vikander, it tells the story of a life from one woman’s vantage point. Vikander is born, grows up, and experiences things that many women will: she gets an abortion during college, experiences her first kiss with a girl, cheats on her husband with both sexes and more. In other words, she’s a complex, multidimensional human being.
The album’s title track serves as the jumping off point for the film, depicting a layered relationship in which a couple has drifted apart, but at the end of the day would say, “I’m still waiting for you every night with ticker tape.” While not an overt statement of allyship, it’s an unexpected acknowledgment of the feminine point of view for a band so strongly associated with the masculine.