Who gets through times like these without a crisis? The American music collective The National also had to navigate heavy seas before the new work experienced its happy ending: So curtain up for a wonderful rehearing with a LowBeats music favorite and for multi-layered indie rock with literary qualities and prominent guests like Taylor Swift. And so The National’s “First Two Pages Of Frankenstein” almost inevitably became album of the week.
Would I still join Jeff Bezos’ universe if “Ziggy” (you know: the male equivalent of Amazon’s voice assistant “Alexa”, born in 2022) spoke to me in Matt Berninger’s voice? The temptation would be great, I admit it … I love the sonorous baritone of the singer of The National more than anything, and he has exceptional voices like Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave or Mark Gane (once alongside Martha Johnson the male voice of the unforgettable Canadian New wave band Martha + The Muffins) has its place in the hit parade of my personal favorite singers.
On the other hand: In my lifestyle, I don’t like to let myself be digitized more than absolutely necessary – and anyway, I much prefer to hear Matt Berninger as the singer of his exceptional band The National than to talk to him about buying dog food or about the traffic jam reports on German autobahns. So Ziggy may continue to work with the timbre of a German newsreader: Amazon-Jeff must continue to do without me, and I’m approaching the new album by Matt Berninger & Co. while consistently ignoring any Amazon and Spotify servers. Following an always relatively constant work rhythm, the New York-based quintet now presents the number 9 of their oeuvre with “First Two Pages Of Frankenstein”. So everything easy at The National?
Not at all. Because the way to the successor to the celebrated 2019 coup “I Am Easy To Find”turned out to be a mean nightmare. And it was Matt Berninger himself who was at the center of this crisis scenario and slid into a veritable creative crisis in 2020/21. “I was going through a very dark phase at the time, in which I couldn’t think of any lyrics or melodies for over a year,” the 52-year-old recalls his massive creative block. “And although we’ve always been anxious and often argued when we were making a record, this was the first time it felt like things had really come to an end. But somehow we managed to get back together and approach everything from a different angle. This has brought us into what feels like a new era for the band.”
The Music of The National “First Two Pages Of Frankenstein”
But it still resonates with what guitarist/pianist Bryce Dessner, his brother Aaron (guitar/piano/bass), and brothers Scott Devendorf (bass, guitar) and Bryan Devendorf (drums) had to endure during this time before the eleven new songs were in the can. In any case, “Once Upon A Poolside”, recorded together with US indie folk icon Sufjan Stevens, opens the song cycle as a piano ballad between deep melancholy and genuine despair. So an extremely dark-toned start – but already in “Eucalyptus” there is that portion of wonderfully dense, yet cleverly dosed noise that long-standing connoisseurs of the American indie band appreciate so much and which, in combination with ballad-like beauty, result in the enchanting signature sound of The National.
Acoustic guitar, a gentle mid-tempo beat, and Matt Berninger’s performance between spoken poetry and classic independent singing then characterize the other parts of a song collection that combines lyrics with literary quality with the virtues of contemporary indie rock. The fact that the soft tones predominate shouldn’t come as a surprise, see above, and makes this album work for listening and for contemplative hours.
Nevertheless, fingers snap and feet tap-dance when the band provides their frontman with a distinctive dancing groove and feather-light instrumental accompaniment – as exemplified in “New Order T-Shirt” or in “This Isn’t Helping”, an emotionally dense yet sensitively sung duet between Berninger and his American colleague Phoebe Bridgers with a slightly rough synth guitar set. Incidentally, Phoebe Bridgers performs a second time in a duet, and “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend” also goes almost solemnly and tenderly through a melancholic piano arrangement.
The guest list of “First Two Pages Of Frankenstein” is then completed by the current female superstar of the (white) American music scene: In “The Alcott” Berninger actually shares the microphone with Taylor Swift. As is well known, the almost all-rounder from Pennsylvania, who has long since matured into a renowned singer-songwriter, has worked with members of The National on several occasions – for example on her 2020 albums “Folklore” and “Evermore”, co-produced and composed by Aaron Dessner and herself with a guest appearance returned the favor on Aaron Dessner’s solo project Big Red Machine.
Pleasantly, however, both the band and their label 4AD refrain from any name-dropping and never explicitly advertise “First Two Pages Of Frankenstein” with the name of the prominent guest singer – a good thing, because between the sound cosmos of Taylor Swift as a solo artist and what she contributes as a duet partner, there are as many different worlds as Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue once did when the great existentialist of indie rock and the dance-pop blonde got together in 1995 for “Where The Wild Roses Grow”.
The first five-minute single “Tropical Morning News”, almost danceable and highly optimistic by The National standards, and especially “Grease In Your Hair”, the 3:58 long to powerful drumbeats dense and gripping and plowing through the key-string cosmos of The National with hymn-like vocal lines. Messrs. Devendorf and Dessner unpack some beautifully crisp guitar riffs in “Alien”, before “Ice Machines” then herald the thoughtful finale of an album that doesn’t need grand gestures or striking effects to draw attention to itself, but rather that mainly in a quiet way and with filigree musical means gets under the skin.
The National First Two Pages Of Frankenstein is issued by 4AD Records, distributed by Beggars/Indigo, and is available on CD, gatefold LP, download and stream, and limited red vinyl gatefold LP edition (Cover Qobuz)