Friday, March 15th, 2019

The National – You Had Your Soul With You

Ooh, you had your soul with you…


Joshua Copperman: I Am Easy To Find is the most challenging The National have been to date, for both intentional reasons and some less intentional ones. All the hallmarks of a great National song are here: production loaded with ear candy (like that guitar line or the third time they’ve abruptly entered a string interlude), Bryan Devendorf’s torrential downpour of snares. But Gail Ann Dorsey merely fills in for Matt Berninger on the bridge rather than complementing him, and the lyrics, written by Matt’s wife Carin Besser with Thomas Bartlett, sound increasingly like self-parody — “I had only one last feather left/I wore it on the island of my head” is like someone threw Boxer into a neuralnet. High Violet has aged well because its songs were whittled down into their best possible forms, the band’s internal tension giving way to external effortlessness. I Am Easy To Find has elements of that effortlessness, but this first single is one of a few moments where high-budget gimmicks just barely elevate mid-tier National songs. Yet, they do.

Alfred Soto: The National record music for men who order Pink Rabbits on weekends and smoke too many cigarettes when their wives “let” them go to concerts. No National single lacks for odd hooks: here, the distorted guitar figure ping-ponging between speakers, an ace string section interlude, and the usual Bryan Devendorf kinetics behind the drum kit. Momentum and an attractively meaningless title — ho hum, another National single.

Tim de Reuse: So, what is this — rather, what was this supposed to be? Dry, cluttered electronics under heavily-compressed drums under a soppy string arrangement under a nursery-rhyme melody: none of these pieces fit together. The more you listen, the more incomprehensible details float groggily to the surface. Why does it feel like they forgot to unmute the bass track before exporting? Why are the hi-hats exiled to the edges of human perception? Why feature a guest vocalist if you’re not going to let her do anything? Perhaps the most confusing part is that The National could’ve easily continued selling out stadiums for decades to come by just writing High Violet over and over again, which shouldn’t be hard given that from 2005 to 2013 they basically released one really good album four times with increasing amounts of reverb. That’s not the outcome I dream about for a band I have this much emotional investment in, but I’d rather daydream about that than listen to this awkward pileup.

Thomas Inskeep: This doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard recently; it sounds original, the sound of a band in the studio doing lots of things they’ve never tried before because they’ve realized they can. And on this song at least, the National can — this is dynamite, especially drum-wise. And that’s before the unexpected vocal appearance of Gail Ann Dorsey, whose rich, full voice initially sounds as if dropped in from another song. And her harmonizing with Matt Berninger is gorgeous.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Matt Berninger’s rich baritone was always one of The National’s big draws, or at least one of the only things that made them stand out. The other: Bryan Devendorf’s ability to make his drums sound simultaneously austere and elastic. Removing one of these elements isn’t a complete dealbreaker, but the skittering electronics here are shallow ornamentations that show how the band is running out of ideas.

Vikram Joseph: Bryan Devendorf’s percussion has always been the National’s secret weapon, giving their songs a skittish, propulsive anxiety that tessellates perfectly with Matt Berninger’s strange metaphors and sad non-sequiturs. But despite its kineticism, it feels effortless, an integral part of the song. On “You Had Your Soul With You”, the percussion becomes a jarring, distracting sideshow, as if it and the jittery synths are pursing each other around the back of a stage while a key expository scene unfolds in the foreground. It’s no coincidence that the strongest part by far is the lush, string-soaked middle eight, where guest vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey delivers the best line in the song: “You have no idea how hard I died when you left.” Her vocals fold beautifully into Berninger’s, and the many female guest slots on the forthcoming album bode well (who can forget the shatteringly beautiful duet between Berninger and Annie Clark on their cover of “Sleep All Summer”?). The band’s clumsy, scattershot use of electronics, however, does not.

Josh Love: I feel like a hypocrite pushing back against this brighter, more dynamic iteration of The National after I’d gotten so ground down by their miserablist shades of gray that I didn’t even bother giving their last album a fair shake (and I counted myself a big fan even up to and including Trouble Will Find Me). Still, “You Had Your Soul With You” just sounds like Vampire Weekend’s or St. Vincent’s nervy, busy aesthetics lazily grafted onto Matt Berninger’s solemn vocal burr.

Katherine St Asaph: A genuinely striking intro — those 15 seconds of jerky guitar panning are both arresting and a great test of whether one of your earbuds has crapped out — built on the watery foundation of a song by Coldplay, or for that matter The National. The former sinks into the mush; the latter twitches with the fripperies too much to swoon.

Iris Xie: “You Had Your Soul With You” just reminds me of the discomfort of trying to listen through some of my brother’s early ’00s alt rock as a 10-year-old, and trying to understand what was so good and “adult” about it, and was I missing something? (The answer is no.) This sounds like someone trying to make a drum and bass track, but with… actual instruments? The sensation of listening to this song is like watching a Windows Media Player equalizer move and shudder around, and you pay more attention to the little spiky discrepancies than the song. I do like the post-chorus instrumental where the discordant drum work suddenly opens up, like the sun after the rain has ended, but then the muddiness resumes. Combine this with a smooth but slightly suffocated delivery, and I feel messier and scattered than before I started listening to the song. I guess that suits the lyrics, but the song sounds unclear, even to itself.

Iain Mew: For all the superficial electronic additions, it sounds vital in a classic, immediately familiar way that The National haven’t in a while. Matt Berninger is once again a man suspended in crisis, picking his way between collapsing velvet walls in total calm while the drums tell of secret adrenaline surges. Well, the first half does anyway. The second half is new in a different way, with its open expanses, Gail Ann Dorsey guest vocals and accelerating string arrangement that had me searching “You Had Your Soul With You” + “Owen Pallett.” They each work, but the resulting feeling is a bit awkward: two contrasting styles of “return to form,” squashed into one track.

Reader average: [7.5] (2 votes)

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One Response to “The National – You Had Your Soul With You”

  1. Good writin’, everyone.

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