The National are tired and worn out — that’s the explicit subject of First Two Pages of Frankenstein’s best song, “Tropic Morning News,” but it’s a feeling that runs throughout the band’s new album. Lead singer Matt Berninger has always favored a particular persona: his white-collar drone, cryptically melancholy lyrics, and low baritone are signatures of the National’s sound. In his monograph for 2007’s Boxer, Ryan Pinkard cited American author John Cheever’s preoccupation with off-kilter suburban angst as a conscious influence, and in the video for 2010’s “Bloodbuzz, Ohio,” Berninger took on the role of a punch-the-clock businessman getting drunk on his lunch break. What recent articles in The Guardian and The Washington Post have indicated, though, is that this “sad dad” disposition isn’t an act: between 2020 and 2021, Berninger experienced an intense period of depression and writer’s block. Regrettably, First Two Pages of Frankenstein suggests that the creative stagnancy remains.
But let’s go back a bit first. After the National signed to Beggars Banquet in 2004 (now folded into their current label, 4AD), they adopted a certain extroversion that helped them find a very large audience. Their commercial breakthrough Boxer departed from the Americana leanings of their first two albums, as well as the post-punk influences and scrappy production of their Beggars Banquet debut, Alligator. While the roots of their current malaise were always implicit in their music, the group mastered the neat trick of selling glum introversion as Bono-ready arena fodder. And, as soon as their recording budgets allowed, the quiet, relaxed quality of much of their early music found space to accommodate “bigger” sounds, like Phil Collins-in-a-huge-warehouse drums.
The main problem with First Two Pages of Frankenstein, then, is that it sticks too closely to the same mood and sounds the group has favored for a while. They don’t break a sweat here, although the mid-tempo “Tropic Morning News” and “Grease in Your Hair” at least offer some relief from a sea of slow ballads. Song after song launches with drum loops, synth pads, and acoustic guitars, and they only ever evolve by increasing in volume and piling on more instrumentation. Meanwhile, drummer Bryan Devendorf’s programmed sounds are aggressively artificial and tinny. Even if the songs are more complex than typical rock music, their structures still fall far too neatly into an easy formula. It’s all a recycling of ideas the National have executed much more powerfully on earlier albums, and that’s before we get to something like “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend,” the absolute nadir of their career, completely indistinguishable from 2000s “alternative adult contemporary” mush like the Fray.
First Two Pages of Frankenstein might play better if encountered as individual songs for Spotify playlist-filler rather than a complete album experienced in one sitting. Even as the lyrics delve into autobiographical detail, the music sticks to a politely downbeat mood. “New Order T-Shirt,” for instance, cites a real incident in which the TSA mistook Berninger’s alarm clock for a bomb at the Honolulu airport in 2010, while “Eucalyptus” documents a couple squabbling over their Cowboy Junkies and Afghan Whigs albums, as they plan to break up, which feels specific to the point of the personal. But it all never amounts to much.
There are better moments, like the aforementioned “Tropic Morning News,” which stands out due to its upbeat melody and arrangement, the contrast between the lyrics and music transcending any cheap irony. It addresses the practice of waking up and doomscrolling: “Got up to seize the day / With my head in my hands feeling strange.” The social damage of the present moment is stripped down to its effect on a married couple: “Oh, where are all the moments we’d have? / Oh, where’s the brain we shared? / Something somehow has you rapidly improving.” As Berninger sings about barely being able to hold down a conversation with his wife, the danceable tune suggests a brighter future beyond his current perspective. Still, even this song comes off as blinkered. Where “Bloodbuzz, Ohio” referred to both the band’s Cincinnati roots and the 2008 economic crash (“I still owe money to the money to the money I owe / The floors are falling down from everybody I know”), “Tropic Morning News” is far more concerned with the impact of bad news on a marriage than its material effects on a larger world.
Given the National’s sound and considerable influence in the music world, guest appearances from Sufjan Stevens and Phoebe Bridgers (who sings backup on two songs) are little surprise. And their unquestionable technical range is reflected in guitarists Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s side projects: the former composes classical music, while the latter co-produced and co-wrote much of Taylor Swift’s folklore and evermore, and turns out records as one-half of Big Red Machine, with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. But both those collaborations and any more potentially daring sonic trajectories are subsumed into Frankenstein’s defiantly gloomy sound. Bridgers’ voice is barely audible on the chorus of “This Isn’t Helping,” though her presence at least adds some emotional depth to the track, suggesting the possibility of escaping from Berninger’s introspection. Swift also turns up with a vocal on “The Alcott,” but instead of performing a full-fledged duet, she helps flesh out the song, weaving her softly mixed vocals together with Berninger’s and entering the band’s world rather than bringing them over to her brighter tone.
On their last album, 2019’s I Am Easy to Find, the National likewise tried challenging themselves by working with a cast of female guest singers, with mixed results at best. Transformed into an album proper after its composition for a short film by Mike Mills, that record introduced a roster of vocalists, including Gail Ann Dorsey and Sharon van Etten, and toned down Berninger’s presence (his wife Carin Besser also writes many of the band’s lyrics). However, the result only worked to demonstrate just how crucial Berninger’s voice is to a working National sound. First Two Pages of Frankenstein moves more wholly back into that space, but also forward into a mood of emotional dissociation that doesn’t seem entirely intentional. As much as the album is soaked in fears of ruining friendships and a marriage, the hushed finale, “Send For Me,” scans as more numb than hopeful or interrogative, reflecting a record that is both thematically and sonically too unvaried and dispirited. Profound unease fades too easily into old formulas, and what’s left is just Starbucks background music.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 17.