The National are a band with an interesting history to say the least. Releasing their debut album in 2001, three months after The Strokes’ Is This It? had made indie-rock the coolest thing on the planet, it would have been easy for them to get washed away in the tsunami of copycat acts that followed.
Not only did they thrive, but they also survived the natural wave of post-fad contempt. It was the strength of their songwriting that truly canonised them; Matt Berninger’s words inspired a generation of contemplative types to write (and boy are we foreshadowing) about their deep-seated feelings in detail, in lieu of something ‘cooler’ and/or more palatable for the radio. Due to this degree of separation, this noble artistic foresight, they’ve been ‘allowed’ to age and mature publicly in a way most bands aren’t granted the good faith to. This is where we’re at, where we’ve been for probably three LPs and a decade, a proper grown-up version of The National, complete with documented aches, pains and problems.
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The four note piano plink on opener ‘Once Upon a Poolside’ finds Berninger anxious to take to the stage. He lives in awe of the competent conversationalists and social butterflies of his life; he couldn’t feel less like them: “I’ll follow you everywhere / While you work the room / I don’t know how you do it/ Tangerine perfume”. The Sufjan Stevens feature begins an unfortunate trend on First Two Pages of Frankenstein, where an artist whose trajectory was undoubtedly affected by The National shows up to do very little. There’s a strength to the addition of Sufjan’s backing vocals, sure, but overall it’s a missed opportunity.
‘Eucalyptus’ is a laundry-list of post-breakup worries, the question of who should own what and why. “You should take it, ’cause I’m not gonna take it / You should take it, if I miss it, I’ll visit”. The song builds its frustrations up into something almost stadium-rock sized, but exercises some last-minute control of the situation.
‘New Order T-Shirt’ will feel to fans of the band incredibly familiar: it draws to mind both ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ and ‘I Need My Girl’ instantly in its nostalgic recollection of bygone events, written to an involved party, complete with all the necessary ‘yous’ and lines predicated on remembering something or other. Berninger clings to minor details, possibly in hopes of emulating feeling. It is, of course, fantastically written and no-doubt rooted in truth – but it’s one too many in this vein. I’ve heard this brand new song before, and a decade ago.
‘This Isn’t Helping’ is another steady ballad with instrumentally little to write home about. Phoebe Bridgers is here, as she is everywhere you look, in the Sufjan spot of essentially offering support on hooks. I won’t harp on this point, you know what I think.
Energy is desperately needed, and the sharp drum machine beats of ‘Tropic Morning News’ have got a phial or two to spare. Against the rest of the track listing thus far, it makes a lot of sense why they selected it as the lead single. The mid-point guitar solo is a little ill-fitting, but ultimately inoffensive. I see Berninger’s melancholy perfectly through the third verse: “I’ll be over here lying near the ocean, making ocean sounds / Let me know if you can come over and work the controls for a while”.
‘Alien’ gets really good three minutes into its four minute run time, which is the kind of tragedy, I don’t know, The National would sing about. It’s a decent enough track, but the rapid-fire drums on a free-and-clear ambient wave take me right back to 2017’s Sleep Well Beast when I really needed a bit of that. It’s not new, but it sure is dependable.
‘The Alcott’ tells me to piss off with it’s prominent Taylor Swift feature, and yeah, fair. It’s a gorgeous back-and-forth vocally, with Berninger holding the narrative down as Swift flourishes with responsive micro-melodies. They assume the roles of former lovers re-meeting, wondering if they can figure their shit out… if it would even be worth trying to, or if the water has truly made it above the bridge. The line “And there you are, sitting as usual with your golden notebook / Writing something about someone who used to be me” for a second or ten really makes me understand First Two Pages of Frankenstein. I just wish a theme so all-encompassing wasn’t tucked away on track seven of eleven.
The benign envy of the opener crops up once more on ‘Grease In Your Hair’: “You were so funny then / And I kept thinking I would catch it”. Following track ‘Ice Machines’ is built almost the same, with a pre-chorus faking out the “big moment”, standing strong enough alone to make you think nothing’s hiding behind its back. It’s been a hook-light album (save for maybe ‘Tropic Morning News’) so I enjoy the little pace change.
‘Your Mind Is Not Your Friend’ is just as compositionally interesting, and has maybe my favourite mix on a track in a good while. It sounds messy on paper: sauntering keys, minimalist John Mayer-esque guitar bends and blindsiding violin – but a lot of things get in and get out, leaving a bunch of space between the snapping snares.
‘Send For Me’ is reconciliation, not just with those you love but ultimately with oneself. “Send for me whenever, wherever / Send for me, I thought you’d never”. It’s the orange sunset on an album of murky skies. It’s a bit of a plod, but it’s easy to put that down to how much hammering home would need to be done to offset all the tough questions and jostling with self-identity we’ve endured over the runtime.
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First Two Pages of Frankenstein is a fine album, but not in the way people say in reverence. It is, frankly, creatively bankrupt against the impressive catalogue of The National’s work, and the band seem keen to remind me: the past is not just celebrated with signposting, it is drawn from tirelessly, patchworked over the ideas that could have materialised.
The problem I have is that choosing to spend your career now building effigies to the past is really very convincing, I too realise that I would rather listen to albums prior, because there’s comparatively so little for me here, not pointing there. It is a record that pushes nothing, and goes nowhere. It is, despite this, executed very well: aesthetically congruent, obviously eloquent and produced beautifully. I find it to be the absolute best impression of The National anybody could do. I just don’t have to tell you they themselves shouldn’t be doing it.
First Two Pages of Frankenstein is out now from 4AD.