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Altrok Showcase w/ Sean Carolan

CD of The Week

Week of 5/01/23

    The National - First Two Pages of Frankenstein (4AD)

    Despite their longevity and consistency, press coverage of the making of most albums from The National have described a fraught writing and recording process. The four-year gestation period of First Two Pages of Frankenstein was marked both by vocalist/primary lyricist Matt Berninger’s pandemic-instigated depression and writer’s block, as well as increasing extramural success by multi-instrumentalist Aaron Dessner as a producer and collaborator on two chart-topping Taylor Swift albums. It was not until after a successful short tour last summer that serious work on the band’s ninth album commenced and they utilized their Rolodex (just like they did for the 2019 album, I Am Easy to Find) by calling on Swift, Phoebe Bridgers, and Sufjan Stevens for appearances. The end result is a lush album that leaves behind the tension and ominousness that can characterize the band’s best work but opens the door to an interesting third act as a legacy band that can still upend expectations.

    Strings and piano have played a role in The National’s sound for over a decade, but their dominance in the arrangements is still striking on initial listens to First Two Pages of Frankenstein. The enjoyable first single “Tropic Morning News” is ultimately a red herring, as its guitar base and bouncy drumbeat resemble High Violet-era National, while the rest of the album is largely composed of pretty ballads that lack immediacy. but are often rewarding on further exploration. As always, Berninger’s lyrics are frequently evocative and conjure up beautifully-realized images on songs such as “New Order T-Shirt” where the narrator reflects on a time in New York City “before the ashes and management capital files filled the streets.” Still, there’s a wish for more of a pulse and less polish on tracks such as “Grease in Your Hair” and “Ice Machines” which have interesting melodies but never take flight.

    Yet, if you remove any expectations of what The National should necessarily sound like, there are real treasures in the collaborations. Swift’s contribution (she also has a co-writing credit on the song), “The Alcott” is an effectively melancholy waltz and the harmonies between her tender soprano and Berninger’s brooding baritone are near sublime. The two songs with Bridgers are also quite gentle, but emotionally resonant in their exploration of confusion and despair.

    First Two Pages of Frankenstein confirms that The National of old, the band that broke out of the same Meet Me in the Bathroom-scene as Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio, is gone. There’s very little concern on the album for anthemic choruses or urgency. Emphasis is instead on ornate instrumentation and a more direct expression of the morose feelings that have always characterized Berninger’s lyrics. It makes for a largely successful way to cement a new era for the band. The volume may be turned down, but the ambition is still plenty audible.

    The National will be playing two shows at The Met with The Beths this summer. Tickets are sold out for the August 1st show but remain available for August 2nd.
    Review by Sol

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