How can you tell you’re washed when so much of your greatest music is about being washed? It’s a question that has lingered around the National as long as they’ve been famous. Ever since taking “another un-innocent, elegant fall into the un-magnificent lives of adults” on 2007 breakthrough Boxer, the Brooklyn-founded band of Cincinnati natives has been giving off sad-dad vibes, turning middle-aged neuroses into tastefully morose bangers, ballads, and anthems. You know the drill: Over contemplative, sometimes cathartic big-budget indie rock, lanky baritone Matt Berninger grumbles and croons his way through borderline-surreal vape-pen poetry about depression, dysfunction, alienation — all the midlife-crisis feelings — lending quirky personality to an otherwise deadly serious sound. The approach yielded magnificent results for years, though exactly how many years is up for debate.
As the National have helped to develop the prestige-blockbuster wing of indie rock, fine-tuning an aesthetic fit for dark nights of the soul and dinner parties alike, they have increasingly been accused of succumbing to the kind of hopeless lethargy Berninger so frequently sings about. Yet their shows continue to be religious experiences for the heavy-hearted faithful, and their sound has remained wildly influential — so much so that by the end of the 2010s you could build an entire subgenre out of artists who tapped multi-instrumentalist Aaron Dessner to produce their records. In 2020, that number famously expanded to include pop monolith Taylor Swift, who recruited Dessner to apply his translucent indie-folk magic to her pandemic recording project folklore and by year’s end had invited Berninger to guest on its companion album, evermore. A pair of Swift features on the 2021 album from Dessner and Justin Vernon’s side project Big Red Machine affirmed that these artists are fully in each other’s orbit at this point, and it all but guaranteed a massive audience of Swifties for the next National album even before Taylor’s appearance here was locked in.
All those new ears are tuning into a band that, although not fully wrung out, now feels decidedly past its prime. First Two Pages Of Frankenstein, out Friday, continues a downward trend that started on 2019’s I Am Easy To Find. (Some would say, incorrectly, that the slide started with 2017’s exceptional Sleep Well Beast or even earlier. Wrong! Get your ears fixed!) I Am Easy To Find was too long and dour for its own good, and it marked the first time Berninger’s lyrical idiosyncrasies started to strike me as self-parody, especially when he rattled off beloved pop culture artifacts on “Not In Kansas” and mistook it for profound. But the album at least had ambition going for it: The band welcomed a large cast of guest vocalists into the fold for the first time and teamed with 20th Century Women director Mike Mills on an accompanying film. If those attempts to evolve were something of a failed experiment, Frankenstein just feels like the National on autopilot.
The album is fine. It’s fine. It’s not better than fine, but after careful consideration, I’m also not ready to declare it as worse than fine. It is, somewhat devastatingly and somewhat reassuringly, a document of a band that once stacked up masterpiece after masterpiece moving into their legacy-maintenance era, doing a slightly inferior version of that thing they do so well. If you already dislike the National or believe they fell off a long time ago, Frankenstein absolutely will not change your mind. If this crew remains close to your heart, your experience will be more complicated. Maybe not as complicated as untangling your feelings about Dessner producing the new Ed Sheeran album, but still: complicated.
I’ve gone to bat for latter-day Wilco records, so I’m not about to outright dismiss a set of immaculately polished new tracks from one of my favorite bands, even if it bored me to death at first. Repeated exposure over several months has revealed Frankenstein as perfectly acceptable comfort food — an extension of textures, vibes, and motifs that, after all this time, feel like home. Most of the advance singles seemed inert and undynamic upon release, and it’s not like they were hiding some electrifying “Mr. November” sequel in the deep cuts. But the National are one of those bands whose songs can initially drift past you and then come alive on the 10th, 20th, or even 50th listen, as hooks ingratiate themselves or patient arrangements catch you in a moment of clarity. Fans who languish in the new music long enough will surely find much to love.
What they may struggle to find are two of the three high-profile guests. Sufjan Stevens, whose voice has haunted National tracks before, is for the first time granted a featured credit on opener “Once Upon A Poolside,” the group’s gazillionth somber piano ballad. It’s unclear why this particular backing vocal performance merited a special mention; Sufjan’s harmonies and wordless coos conjure the spirit of Carrie & Lowell, but if you didn’t know he was on the song, you might not notice. Despite serving as a captivating duet partner for Berninger on his solo single “Walking On A String,” Phoebe Bridgers is similarly relegated to background duty in her appearances on the slow jams “This Isn’t Helping” and “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend.” In practice, marginalizing the collaborators is not necessarily a bad thing; I Am Easy To Find suggested that the National work better when Berninger is the sole narrator, ushering you into the peculiar recesses of his deepest thoughts and feelings, without competing perspectives breaking the spell. Still, once the band played up the involvement of their big-name friends, reducing them to a ghost-like presence feels like a bait-and-switch.
The exception to this practice is Taylor Swift’s performance on “The Alcott.” Swift is the only guest on Frankenstein who co-wrote the song she appears on; accordingly, she’s the only one who thoroughly makes her presence felt. I was afraid she would stick out glaringly, but the pairing works surprisingly well, splitting the difference between the two artists and finding enormous common ground. “The Alcott” begins as yet another piano ballad about a romance on the brink: “And the last thing you wanted/ Is the first thing I do,” Berninger and Swift sing together. “I tell you my problems/ You tell me the truth.” As the song creeps slowly toward its climax, it comes alive. Swift darts into the space between Berninger’s lines, crafting the other half of a dialogue, echoing every phrase with unmistakably Swiftian sentiments like “Could it be easy this once?” and “I love this curse on our house.” Some will find it corny — especially the conclusion, “I think I’m falling back in love with you” — but for me it’s evidence that the National can still successfully shake up their approach sometimes.
Really, though, they don’t need to shake it up so much as they need to give it a jolt of energy. The National remain adept at sculpting gorgeous soundscapes. The crystalline guitar parts, the glassy piano, the sense that you’re viewing autumnal woodlands through an LCD screen — they’ve got this down to a science. But the feeling that you’re hearing the result of a sterile formula is part of the problem with Frankenstein. Musically, this band mostly lacks their old sense of urgency. They used to rock out a lot more often — on Alligator, sure, but also on Boxer and High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me and Sleep Well Beast. The visceral, explosive qualities elevated the ballads by extension, creating a natural dynamic contrast. Whereas here the ostensible loud ones and quiet ones mostly blur together.
This issue partially stems from a de-emphasis on Bryan Devendorf’s lively, inventive drumming, the ingredient that made even the National’s stateliest anthems slap. Too consistently now, the band defaults to a steady drum-machine pulse that adds texture but not life to the proceedings. Lead single “Tropic Morning News” cruises along innocuously, like a car going below the speed limit in the passing lane. The difference is remarkable on “Grease In Your Hair,” where Devendorf pounds the bejeezus out of his kit and the layers of intensity keep piling on. Even a song like “Alien,” carried along by a bunch of frenetic drum fills, is restrained in a way that dulls the impact. (I’m pretty sure the hook “Drop down like an alien” is not intended as strip-club fodder, but not totally sure. Berninger is a freak.) You just know they’re going to cut loose when they play that song in concert, but why not wild out on the record too?
It’s no coincidence that the most incendiary track on the album, the fuzz-bombed and regal divorce story “Eucalyptus,” was partially recorded onstage. That’s the one where Berninger, imagining a couple dividing up their belongings, wonders aloud, “What about the Cowboy Junkies? What about the Afghan Whigs?” It’s a prime example of his recent lyrical approach, which often involves utterly specific personal anecdotes and a hearty sprinkling of band names. A decade ago, on the exquisite and propulsive “Don’t Swallow The Cap,” Berninger sang, “And if you want to see me cry/ Play Let It Be or Nevermind.” Invoking the classics by name is the kind of maneuver you have to use sparingly, but in recent years he’s turned it into a modus operandi that hits like a meme. When the songs are as banging as “Eucalyptus” and “Don’t Swallow The Cap,” he can get away with those fourth-wall-breaking name-drops. On a more pedestrian track like “New Order T-Shirt,” the tactic starts to feel lazy.
Then again, “New Order T-Shirt” has bigger problems than an over-reliance on pop-cultural detritus. Berninger’s red-eyed, rumpled-formal-wear ruminations have always been a bit much, but as with Matty Healy or Father John Misty or even pre-oblivion Kanye West, a love/hate relationship with his indulgences was part of the appeal. At the National’s peak, Berninger was channeling his off-kilter perspective into, like, verses and choruses? Too often now he goes full Kozelek, letting stream-of-consciousness memories meander rather than spitting bars. “When you rescued me from the customs cops in Hawaii,” he recalls. “When I shut down the place with my Japanese novelty bomb/ And your dad came along.” Just as with Sun Kil Moon, the ambling spoken-word method yields diminishing returns over time, until your earnest outpourings start to sound like satire.
OK. The grievances have been aired. The flaws have been cataloged. The complaints have been registered. I stand by these gripes, and at times I’ve felt them deeply. But I have to admit that my feelings toward Frankenstein are warmer than they were when I started writing this review. This band remains too good at so many of the moves that made me love them in the first place: The slow flood of emotion that fills up “This Isn’t Helping” until it overflows with glimmering beauty? The bluesy livewire guitar that comes snaking through the end of “Alien”? The euphoria that sets in as “Grease In Your Hair” ratchets up to new levels of giddy intensity? The way the gorgeous, low-key closer “Send For Me” sets the album adrift into an open ellipsis?
None of this is new or revolutionary, and there’s absolutely no reason to try with this album if you’re indifferent toward the National’s earlier work — unless you want to savagely roast it, in which case you have more than enough material to work with. (“I can be your nurse or something/ Bring you watermelon nicotine” in a junior varsity Leonard Cohen growl? Woof.) But people with a sentimental connection to this band should know that, as more and more songs have seized me in the moment or snuck up on me hours later, what at first felt like “another National album” (derogatory) is starting to feel more like “another National album!” (celebratory). I still can’t tell you whether this band is washed, only how it feels when their new music is washing over me.
First Two Pages Of Frankenstein is out 4/28 on 4AD.