The National occupies a distinct sound and space in music today. The band is a juggernaut in their own right, having sold out shows and festivals across the world for more than a decade. They’ve released eight studio albums, each more audacious—and detached —than the previous one. Their production and instrumentation is unmatched, at times rhythmically industrial or exceptionally restrained.
They’ve created an indelible fanbase of impassioned fans, and even won a Grammy in 2017. They even famously played one single song for six straight hours, a type of endurance performance art. But what has culminated after nearly 25 years of making music surpasses the sum of these achievements: The National crafts songs so beautifully pointed and painful, that their music is like a recorded log of the delicate nature of the human experience.
The National – composed of Matt Berninger, twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and brothers Bryan Devendorf and Scott Devendorf – was formed in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1999. The band has come a long way since their first two albums, the self-titled The National and Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers – with songs that are sometimes spontaneous, other times aggressive. They received critical acclaim with 2005’s Alligator, but it was 2007’s Boxer that birthed The National we know and hear today.
Exposure turned to traction – Boxer made several “album of the decade” lists and “Fake Empire” was used in then-candidate Obama’s campaign videos – and the band found their footing. High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me followed several years later, marked by memorable tracks like “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap.” The National’s signature sound, a sort of red wine alt-rock or self-claimed “sad dad rock,” had emerged, and their legacy as a confessional, “godfather of modern indie rock” band began to take form.
The curiosity, and perhaps appeal, of The National is that they’ve always struggled with some sort of turmoil. The bands’ members have publicly and privately feuded over the years. Creative blocks have given way to months-long periods where they aren’t speaking with each other. Berninger, the band’s frontman, vocalist and lyricist, has been vocal about a range of issues, many of which are readily available for interpretation in most of The National’s songs (Berninger once said: “the songs I write are sad, but they’re a way of staying above water”). There are few outright “positive” songs in the band’s discography; indeed, many of them can be, and have been described as, dark.
The band has often been criticized for this, at least in terms of mass appeal, but it isn’t The National’s responsibility to make certain types of sound that evoke a positive emotion. What I imagine The National is doing, or tries to do, is illustrate the spectrum and depths of emotion, particularly those that aren’t so rosy or clean-cut. Real life is much more confusing, often muddled in the moments of gray, not black or white.
And yet, there is always an ethereal beauty in The National’s output. 2017’s Sleep Well Beast had glimpses into the enduring wonder and familiarity of love, in songs like “Born to Beg” and “Dark Side of the Gym.” The instrumentals may tell another melancholic story – but Berninger’s brand of “optimism” always sounds like a defeated sense of relief. It’s as if he sighs, unable to make sense of the way things are, and instead brings himself back to reality and away from his anxieties. It’s in these moments of release and mundanity that he brings his world back into view, realizing the joy and warmth of the things before him.
The National has always done things on their own, building on the expertise and shifting moods of each other to bring their sound to life. But in 2019, they released I Am Easy To Find, an unprecedented step forward for the band. For the first time, the band’s rough cut music was given new life by film director Mike Mills, resulting in features from a half dozen female vocalists. What emerged from this project was painstakingly gorgeous, and the project made all that much better by the decision to invite in new collaborators to shape and create something fresher, something different. They no longer had sole ownership over a product, and the album felt softer around the edges. Any sort of rigid structure or expectation collapsed into fluidity, and any unfinished spaces were filled with improvisation or subtle deviance.
And it’s I Am Easy to Find that set the backdrop for The National’s ninth studio album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein, out today on 4AD.
Of the new album, Aaron Dessner says “to me, the power of this record has to do with the intentionality and structure of the music meeting with a lot of accidental magic…even when we strayed from the initial idea, we kept dreaming and moving things forward in a very intentional way.” Indeed, Frankenstein sounds and feels less like a standard “The National” album and more like an open art space—not necessarily ushering in new sounds and perspectives, but allowing different nuances to fill in and add to the album where appropriate.
Listeners will no doubt notice that First Two Pages of Frankenstein features other acclaimed artists and frequent National collaborators like Sufjan Stevens, Phoebe Bridgers, and Taylor Swift. None of these artists have standalone verses or choruses; rather, just as Dessner described, they’re interwoven into the structure of the song, like water winding its way around marbles in a jar.
The album opens with “Once Upon A Poolside,” a crooning piano ballad with background support from Stevens that complements and moves the song along. It’s poetic and gentle, with Berninger’s lyrics reflecting a sort of distance, like he’s pacing shortly behind someone who has the ability to light up a conversation, content just to watch them “work the room.”
A few tracks later comes “New Order T-Shirt,” underlined by easygoing guitar riffs and Berninger sounding raspier than usual. While he sings, The National’s signature, excellent production comes into play, drum machines and all (of which there is a lot of on this album). The song is unassuming but catchy, difficult to decipher, ebbing in and out of view.
Track 5 is “Tropic Morning News,” which may very well end up being the album’s anchor. It’s the song that gets the closest to traditional indie rock, toying with alt-pop at the edges, and is straightforward enough in its composition. It even has a lovely little guitar solo halfway through, fading out as soon as it arrives. It’s deceptively light and lovely, though Berninger was actually in the depths of depression while writing it (“I was suffering more than I let on…”). It’s this precise paradox of The National that makes them so interesting – that a song like this just begs you to sing along, while the lyrics paint a picture of someone spiraling in anxious despair.
“The idea of referring to the darkness of the news in such a light way unlocked something in me,” says Berninger. “It became a song about having a hard time expressing yourself, and trying to connect with someone when the noise of the world is drowning out any potential for conversation.”
Later comes “The Alcott” featuring Taylor Swift herself, a staple in The National’s universe after Aaron Dessner and The National had a heavy hand in the creation and production of her covid-era’s folklore and evermore. Taylor is suitably given more room to breathe here, lending her own words and supporting vocals across the track, unlike Stevens and Bridgers who are mostly atmospheric, but welcome, additions to their respective songs. “The Alcott” is a love song—simple as that—about sharing in the fears, truths, and connections of another, and slowly intertwining one’s mind with another’s.
“Ice Machines” is one of the album’s last tracks, an interesting, lyrical puzzle that’s ripe for repeat listening. Here, Berninger feels a bit more empowered, stating he has no need for the validation or forgiveness of another. It almost feels like there’s an acknowledgment of Berninger’s own suffering and the role he has in giving it weight and meaning. “What am I doing, watching clocks?” He casts the trivialities aside, and refocuses his attention elsewhere.
Of the album’s final track, “Send For Me,” Berninger says it’s “one of the most unconditionally positive songs I’ve ever written.” “Send For Me” is, like many songs off Frankenstein, a slow, dizzy stroll, and lyrically represents the band’s consistent support and friendship for one another. No matter the circumstances and how dire they may be, the song is The National saying that they have each other’s backs, simple as that.
And just like that, First Two Pages of Frankenstein ends, entering slowly into view and departing soon after it’s arrived.
Through the decades, The National perseveres. But on Frankenstein, the tone is changed. This is the sound of a band with nothing left to prove. They’ve given all of themselves to the shapeshifting nature of the band and its members, growing and reeling through the years with each other. A little wiser, a little rougher around the edges, but closer to achieving what they unintentionally set out to do.
They have, in some strange way, reached a sort of intrapersonal Nirvana, finally realizing and accepting who they’ve become in relation to themselves and one another. The legacy of The National is as much about the music as it is an exhibit about the ways in which we learn, love and interact with one another. I don’t write this with any sort of certainty or intention, but it sounds like The National is in the final quarter of their career. And what a career they’ve had—using every possible second and word to give form to the travesties and wonder of living life.
First Two Pages of Frankenstein is out now.