The new album by The National is accompanied by a familiar narrative: They almost broke up. Seriously. For real this time. As Matt Berninger recently told The Washington Post, the forthcoming First Two Pages Of Frankenstein (due Friday) “kind of saved our band. I mean, every single one of our records saved our band in one way or another. But this one, the record really came to the rescue.”
I’m sure Berninger and his bandmates will understand if long-time National loyalists take quotes like this with a grain (or a metric ton) of salt. As even he admits, every National album seems to put them on the precipice of extinction. Let’s do a brief review: Alligator was the “we need to get our act together or else” record. Boxer was the “can we capitalize on our burgeoning indie fame” record. High Violet was the “can we get to the next level and achieve actual fame” record. Trouble Will Find Me was the “we almost broke up trying to make a ‘let’s try to not break up this time’ record” record. Sleep Well Beast was the “we may live on separate continents now but can we regroup at Aaron’s upstate New York studio without falling apart” record.
Which brings us to 2019’s I Am Easy To Find, an album that really did sound like a band that might be coming apart. On their previous efforts, The National managed to move forward without losing their innate “stoic on the outside/manic and drunk on the inside” National-ness. But on I Am Easy To Find, a certain restlessness with their sound and persona was perceptible among these Ohio transplants. It’s not only that Berninger ceded a good share of the vocals to backing female singers, sacrificing one of The National’s defining sonic attributes. The songs themselves reiterated the low-key electro-folk balladry of Beast, with a handful of twitchy rockers added for the sake of balance, in a rather perfunctory matter.
As the 2010s unfolded, The National embraced an open-door policy of collaboration with outsiders like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and filmmaker Mike Mills, a move positioned as artistic evolution that pushed their music in new and unpredictable directions. But in reality, it had the opposite effect — I Am Easy To Find was missing something at its center, and that something was a band identity rooted in the fundamental chemistry of the five core members. For the first time, The National sounded like guests on their own album.
After that, the pandemic (of course) came down, which accelerated Aaron Dessner’s creativity as a musical soothsayer for pop superstars (Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran) and handicapped Berninger’s muse with a bad case of writer’s block. Though I wonder if this would have happened anyway, even without the forced work stoppage, given that The National’s interest in being The National seemed to wane during the Easy To Find era.
Cut to the summer of 2022. When I saw The National on their West Coast tour, I was delighted to discover that they were re-energized and sounding like, well, a rock band again. Especially exciting was the Dessner brothers’ guitar interplay, which elevated the band beyond the “mournful pianos and skittering electronic beats” aesthetic that has marked their recent work. And then there was the mighty Bryan Devendorf, one of the great modern indie-rock drummers, whose talents have been perversely under-utilized on recent National albums.
The setlist included several unreleased new songs, and they came across like (pretty great) “back to basics” numbers. Not quite a full return to the after-hours Brooklyn bar music of Alligator, perhaps, but certainly a credible evocation of the surging arena-indie of High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me. Bryce Dessner told me that the band was working on their new record during off-hours on the tour, and incorporating live versions of the new material into the proper album.
This was (pardon the lame pun) music to my ears. And, at its best, First Two Pages Of Frankenstein lives up to that original promise. This is the most National-like that The National has sounded in years. I count at least two home runs here, and several doubles and triples. Those good parts are so good that I wish The National had fully committed to the concept of being themselves on this almost-great record.
First, the smashes: When I first heard “Tropic Morning News” last summer, it felt like an instant-classic National song. And the album version — culled from a widely bootlegged performance in Hamburg — sticks the landing. The rhythm section glides with subtle virtuosity. The guitars lock in on a hypnotic pulse that slow-burns toward a satisfying peak in the outro. And Berninger delivers his patented blend of funny and distraught non sequiturs with pained panache. (Here’s a question for the band’s subreddit: Is the line about how “you can stop and start an athlete’s heart” an accidental Damar Hamlin reference?)
The album’s other undisputed champ is “Eucalyptus,” an end-of-a-relationship dirge that escalates from wry indifference to genuine rage, with Berninger howling over a lurching guitar riff lifted from a rehearsal recording lodged at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y. Berninger doesn’t quite revive his “Mr. November” scream here, but “Eucalyptus” does re-assert the National’s gift for setting up an orderly musical framework and then slowly ripping to shreds over the course of four minutes.
The other highlights on Frankenstein — “New Order T-Shirt,” “Grease In Your Hair,” “Alien,” “Ice Machines” — don’t deliver the emotional highs of the two strongest tracks. But they do re-focus The National on their most essential attribute, which is the sound of these lifelong friends and brothers playing together with minimal extra baggage. As is the case with all great rock bands, the simplest approach — plug in, stand in a circle, block out the outside world — typically is the most winning. And on First Two Pages Of Frankenstein, The National have rediscovered this.
Not that they can (or will) ever completely close the door on their celebrity friends. Long-time collaborator Sufjan Stevens appears on the album-opening “Once Upon A Poolside,” while the ubiquitous Phoebe Bridgers checks in on two pleasant soundalike piano songs, “This Isn’t Helping” and “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend.” And then there is The National’s most famous pal of all, the one who has single-handedly turned our nation’s reigning dad-rock standard-bearers into a Gen Z institution. Taylor Swift’s contribution to “The Alcott,” a vignette about two lovers at a hotel, will surely make it one of The National’s biggest streaming hits. Not only does her vocal offers a bright contrast to Berninger’s middle-aged purr, it’s also an obvious fact that putting Taylor Swift’s name on elephant flatulence would push elephant flatulence to 100 million spins. So, “The Alcott” — which to be clear is significantly better than elephant flatulence — should at least do 200 million.
And that’s great. I’m happy for them. I would just prefer more of them and a little less of everybody else on a National album. I have given up hope that they will ever gather in a room with a crate of whiskey and yell and weep their blues away in an Alligator 2.0-type fashion, the ultimate “back to basics” move. But these guys still sound pretty amazing when it’s just the five of them playing National songs. The worthy First Two Pages Of Frankenstein confirms this, and also leaves me wanting more.