Lore and storytelling play a big part in every album The National has released, and on their ninth album ‘First Two Pages of Frankenstein’, released in April, story was more central than ever. Following their collaborations with Taylor Swift on her pandemic albums ‘Folklore’ and ‘Evermore’, their profile has risen, although the band’s dynamic has felt “fragile” amid frontman Matt Berninger’s life changes and writer’s block. However, these struggles were blatant in the music NME they called it “their best in ten years” and said they managed to “prove that they could do it for themselves as well as the world in waiting”.
‘Laugh Track’ is billed as a “surprise double album”, though whether that’s based on a unnoticed release (apart from a few annoying fan forum leaks) or that the desire to release this material crept up on them. Speak with NME earlier this year, Aaron Dessner revealed that more than 25 songs had been completed in earlier sessions and that he was proud of the “conviction” the band had in choosing the 11 songs that made up ‘First Two Pages…’.
That was until early June, when the band began sound testing what would become final track ‘Smoke Detector’, a nearly eight-minute jam that packs a jagged edge that some felt was missing from ‘First Two Pages…’ . The performance from that stage is preserved here in its mostly original form, wonderfully raw, Berninger’s spark of phrasing “Smoke detector, smoke detector / All you have to do is protect her” as sharp and memorable as his best. The song has since become a live staple of their recent summer tour.
This immediacy, reminiscent of ‘Alligator’, contributes to the success of ‘Laugh Track’. The band re-recorded nine new songs from this existing batch while also making room for their Bon Iver 2022 collaboration “Weird Goodbyes”. Bryan Devendorf’s drumming – thunderous, complex, cutting – is more central to each song: “Deep End (Paul’s In Pieces)” is instantly memorable, as is the anchoring on “Dreaming”. The crescendo of ‘Space Invader’ is as hard as ‘dad rockers’ have gone in a while, its lively drumming blowing away the mostly electronic contributions of ‘First Two Pages…’.
There’s a welcome connection between the two records: Phoebe Bridgers reappears on backing vocals on the title track ‘Laugh Track’, while ‘Coat On A Hook’ and ‘Hornets’ are laced with Berninger’s oblique isms of a relationship in crisis: “What does it mean when your arms fall asleep? / And how will you get rid of the hornets before the weekend?’ reflects on the other. We’ll get back to you. ‘Crumble’ is elevated by a duet with Roseanne Cash – Johnny and June’s daughter – and her country twang, and ‘Alphabet City’ seethes with sonic tension similar to the material from previous records.
The tightness of ‘First Two Pages…’ singles like ‘Tropic Morning News’ and ‘Eucalyptus’ is somewhat lacking, although the looser structures and decision to give the songs room to grow pay off melodically and lyrically. In a statement shared with the record, Berninger says this period “feels like shedding skin” and the band re-entering the unknown for their next creative cycle: an exciting new chapter is sure to emerge.
- Date of publication: September 18, 2023
- Record company: 4 AD