It’s been four years since The National last released a full-length, but they’ve hardly been absent in that time. Matt Berninger released a solo record, Aaron Dessner played a major part on Taylor Swift’s two lockdownrecords and released a new Big Red Machine album, both Dessner brothers played on Complete Mountain Almanac, the Devendorf brothers put out another LNZNDRF record and Brian went solo with Royal Green. That’s far from an extensive list of all the projects they’ve been involved in. So, to us at the distance of fans, The National seem as healthy and creative as ever.
However, on a personal level, things with the quintet have been drifting. The prolificity of their individual output is more like a symptom of their separation than of an overabundance of creativity. At least that’s the way the backstory to their ninth album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein, is written. Berninger, suffering from depression and writer’s block brought on by the band’s stagnation – or perhaps the cause-and-effect were cyclical – only got his mojo back once they were on the road in 2022. Of course, once the words started to come, the only thing he felt like he could write honestly about was this feeling of drift; from the band, from himself, from happiness.
Pretty much the entirety of Frankenstein revolves around this suite of connected feelings, though they are often transposed into a troubled one-on-one romantic relationships, as is Berninger’s wont. Fraughtness is rife from the off, as he intones “Don’t make this any harder” at the top of the album on opener “Once Upon A Poolside”, and then proceeds to describe something of a nervous breakdown; “I can’t keep talking, I can’t stop shaking / I can’t keep track of everything I’m taking.” While The National would once have been wrung out with gut-wrenching empathy, here it’s furnished with a staid piano melody that makes it seem as idyllic as its title. When he delivers what should be killer blow – “is this how this whole thing is gonna end / This the closest we’ve ever been” – the reaction is much closer to a bored sigh than a stifled cry.
A similar breeze of boredom washes over tracks that fall into the same pit of hollow heartbreak. “This Isn’t Helping” is supposed to be right on the crux point of calling it quits in a relationship, but Berninger’s anguish comes across more like petulance in lines like “It isn’t fair how you never look like you’re trying / As if you couldn’t care any less.” Once again, the atmospheric instrumentation is pleasant enough, but doesn’t help push the song anywhere impactful; even as it rises into a multi-voice finale, the result is more like a hymn than a rousing confession. The Taylor Swift duet “The Alcott” has a fairytale lilt in the piano that ices the heart-beating nerves of the track – but instead of building to excitement at seeing his beloved, we’re once again dragged down into drudgery; “It’s the last thing you wanted / It’s the first thing I do.” Taylor Swift, for her part, does bring some sparkle to the track, her voice providing a nice foil as it weaves in and out of Berninger’s. She easily wins MVP among the guests, as Sufjan Stevens and Phoebe Bridgers, in their guest turns, provide little more than minor backing vocals.
The most successful of the break-up tracks here is “Eucalyptus”, which finds Berninger and his ex inventorying all the useless items they’ve picked up over the years and deciding who should keep them. It’s a neat gimmick for a song, but its repetitiveness could easily become wearing – though The National’s subtle build towards catharsis ensures that it remains intriguing for longer than you’d expect.
“Eucalyptus” also has an air of sad nostalgia, a theme that is explored more satisfyingly on two of the album’s strongest tracks, “New Order T-Shirt” and “Grease Your Hair”. Both tracks find Berninger reminiscing on someone that’s drifted from his life, and he brings them to the fore skilfully in his words. The sunny-hewed “New Order T-Shirt” features reflections on minute mannerisms, small trinkets and full-on memories, which are furnished with a gorgeously glistening array of guitars, strings and electronics, so that it plays like an aural montage from a coming-of-age film. “Grease Your Hair”, on the other hand, finds Berninger in a place of pain, unable to talk, paralysed by self-doubt, and horrified at having lost this person from their lives – someone who used to “give me such a future feeling”. The National furnish this tumbling mindset with one of the more propulsive instrumentals on the album, which makes it feel like this person that Berninger needs is slipping further and further from his grasp.
This links to the most successful theme on the album; the tracks where Berninger simply talks about his mental struggles, more or less straightforwardly. “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend” might lack any kind of subtlety in its message (“You feel it in your nerves / It’s choking out the sun), but the forthright honesty makes it hit home, as well as the elegiac way it’s presented with a tripping piano line and Bridgers’ icy harmonies. The rippling “Tropic Morning News” feels almost like a Boxer track made by U2 in the way it sweeps from tense verses into a torrential finale. It’s bolstered by some of Berninger’s best lyricism on the album, where the descriptions of his mania in particular have the same kind of matter-of-fact punch that used to be his calling card; “Got up to seize the day / With my head in my hands feeling strange / When all my thinking got mangled / And I caught myself talking myself off the ceiling.”
The following “Alien” sees him slip back into lyrical malaise as he uses the metaphor of feeling like an alien to describe his alienation – and is not helped by the most boring instrumentation on the record. But then there’s “Ice Machines”, where we feel his hopeless disillusionment from beneath his skin in a way that speaks to our own nerves; “I don’t know what to say to people / It only makes things worse.” The silvery strings and deep bass thump contrast each other nicely to illustrate his mental uncertainty as he tries to convince himself he doesn’t need forgiveness, or anything, before meekly admitting “But I do”.
First Two Pages of Frankenstein concludes with “Send For Me”, which seems like it’s meant to be the happy ending – Berninger rediscovering himself and re-committing to his life and relationships. But, far from the rousing send-off, The National go for a subtle resolution, but it just sees the album fizzle out. It’s an unfortunate end to an album that – despite its shortcomings – has plenty to remind us why The National are one of the most treasured bands currently working, even into their third decade.
It would be nice to say that where they go from here is uncertain, but The National have fallen into a pretty predictable pattern in recent years. They’ll spend another couple of years touring, then we’ll get another beautiful-if-forgettable album in a few years time. What would be nice is if I were completely wrong – what about an angry album from The National? All they’d have to do is look slightly further afield than their own personal lives and they’d discover plenty to get vexed about. They’ve built up enough good will at this point that they’re able to maintain a massive fanbase by coasting through comfortable records – and they could probably continue to do that for a few more years at least. But, if Berninger and co really want to rediscover purpose in their lives and work, perhaps it’s time to push themselves somewhere a little riskier.