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CD of The Week

Week of 9/25/23

    The National - Laugh Track (4AD)

    When artists release two albums in one year, the general thought is that the albums are meant to be linked, either as complementary works or deliberately contrasting documents that show off the range of the artist. The National have made this linkage explicit with their new surprise album, Laugh Track, stating that this is the second half of a double album that began with the release of First Two Pages of Frankenstein in April. While it would be inaccurate to say that Laugh Track is a radical departure from the subtle sounds of Frankenstein, the band may be a bit misleading in their double album claim. Laugh Track feels both looser and louder than Frankenstein, which may be due to the more spontaneous recording process for most of the songs. Fans who are wishing for an album resembling Boxer or High Violet will likely be happier with Laugh Track than Frankenstein, but there are plenty of curveballs that give this effort its own distinct personality.

    A standout element of the album is the return of a more powerful guitar sound from Aaron and Bryce Dessner and tense drumming from Scott Devendorf. This brings much-appreciated muscle to anthemic songs like “Deep End (Paul’s in Pieces)” and “Space Invader.” Matt Berninger’s usual lyrical themes of social anxiety, loneliness, and nostalgia are present, but the vocals continue to be hushed and restrained, providing perhaps the greatest continuity with The National’s other 2023 album. The effect can be too quiet at times, especially when the music remains languid, as is true with the back-to-back “Coat on a Hook” and “Tour Manager,” which both fail to leave an impression.

    On the other hand, the duet “Crumble” with Rosanne Cash is a real highlight, perhaps the band’s best song yet containing a guest vocalist. The track is a bitter and authentic depiction of a couple fighting with Cash and Berninger powerfully harmonizing that “If you say it like that and don’t wanna take it back / I’m gonna crumble.” The album closer, “Smoke Detector,” also makes an impression as a strange, angry jam with Berninger free-associating lines about headless sculptures, monkeys, and the “last living pigeon” over the band’s raw, propulsive playing. The result is surprisingly close to peak Dinosaur Jr.

    Comparisons are inevitable between Laugh Track and First Two Pages of Frankenstein and to my ears, Laugh Track is a half-tier above Frankenstein due to the increased energy level and more consistent songwriting. While neither 2023 album is likely to be considered among The National’s very best, they both show that the band can still push boundaries and explore new sounds as they approach 25 years together.
    Review by Sol

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