Aaron Dessner may have summed The National best when he said, “There’s a weird thing about The National; it’s just an evergreen, creative organism that won’t die. Eventually, no matter how far away we go from it, there’s the centre of gravity that pulls you back.” This perfectly ties into the lore surrounding The National.
Fans have almost become accustomed to the ever-present and constant looming threat of each album being the band’s last. This threat was felt more than ever recently, with the band seemingly as disjointed as ever. Creatively, they were each facing their own existential trials. Emotionally, the previous eight albums had taken their toll, and even geographically, they found themselves spanning a few different time zones.
Maybe this is where the band thrives. Perhaps creeping towards the brink of extinction and readying to check themselves into the indie rock band retirement home is what makes them think, “screw it, let’s go again”.
During the band’s recent hiatus, Matt Berninger battled depression and writer’s block. The album is named after the opening of Mary Shelley’s classic novel is sure to be no coincidence. It helped Berninger push through his writer’s block and return stronger than ever. The band as a whole have even spoken about how this time around, they found joy in making something together again. Berninger described how “This record saved our band. Every single record saved our band in one way or another,” – but this one, the record really came to the rescue.”
Kicking the album off is “Once Upon A Poolside (Feat. Sufjan Stevens).” It is a delicate opening song, stripped of all complexities, allowing the lyrics and vocals to lead the way. It thrives on how exposed it all feels. The subtle backing vocals from Stevens partnered with the simple yet intimate ringing piano and haunting swell of strings in the background make for the perfect tone setter for the album.
It’s followed by the last song written for the album, the sublimely punchy “Eucalyptus”. A song that’s lyrics are teeming with heartache. They paint a story all too familiar for those who listen – dividing up the belongings post-breakup – “What about the glass dandelion?, What about the TV screen?, What about the undeveloped cameras?, Maybe we should bury these”. It’s a little more of a straight-up rock song, providing some heavier guitar tones that fit well with the almost angrily regretful and nostalgic story they share with us here.
A tender note on the album comes during “New Order T-Shirt.” Aaron points out, “There’s a simplicity to that song that reminds me of our earlier records, but with the full maturity and experience we have now. It feels like a really important song for the future of our band.” It’s another example of storytelling being front and centre. It’s an node to those flash-in-the-pan moments that can quickly pass us by, and treasuring them – “I carry them like drugs in a pocket”. The song is richly layered, centred around some shimmering synth and methodical acoustic fingerpicking. It does feel like one of their early records and is one fans of the band will undoubtedly gravitate towards.
The album throws up some eagerly anticipated collaborations. Introspective indie rock poet Phoebe Bridgers appears on “This Isn’t Helping'” and “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend.” Two real standouts on the album, especially the latter that may go down as a modern National classic.
Furthermore, the musical giant and self-proclaimed fan of the band Taylor Swift features on “The Alcott” —another one of the more bittersweet songs of the collection. The songs’ rhythmic piano, accompanied by the vocals from Taylor and Matt, are in real lockstep, leading us to a beautiful communion of styles from the two, who we find inhabiting the roles of a couple attempting to resurrect a troubled relationship.
Taylor’s moments in this song demonstrate how well the band and she understand one another, creating something that feels effortlessly collaborative and complimentary. When speaking about the song, Aaron described how “Matt wrote the main part of the song to some music I had written which Taylor had heard, and I knew liked, so I thought it might be something she would really click with,” says Aaron. “I sent it to her and was a little nervous as I didn’t hear back for 20 minutes or so. By the time she responded, Taylor had written all her parts and recorded a voice memo with the lyrics she’d added in a dialogue with Matt, and everyone fell immediately in love with it. It felt meant to be.”
Overall, First Two Pages of Frankenstein is a collection of songs not made to revolutionise the band’s sound. It’s not made to shock or challenge whatever definition fans or media moguls have labelled them; instead, it feels like a band at home. It’s a collection of songs that perfectly encapsulates all the fans have come to love about them.
It’s beautifully composed from start to finish, bringing more of that familiar cathartic indie-rock melodrama to the stage, being driven home with brutally honest, emotionally direct and self-reflective themes that make listening to the album feel like you’ve stumbled across someone’s diary.
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