The National Find Inspiration in Mary Shelley on Post-Depression Rebound Album
Indie mainstay, The National, released their last album, 2019’s “I Am Easy to Find,” in conjunction with a short film that began with birth and ended with death. It shouldn’t particularly boggle the mind that frontman Matt Berninger would find himself consequently suffering from writer’s block. When the pandemic came, he plunged into depression and feared the band’s two-decade career had reached its final days. Yet, the National have released a new album. In its opening number, “Once Upon a Poolside,” Berninger trudges along a plaintive piano figure at a pace of depressive time dilation. “Don’t make this any harder,” he sings, “Everybody’s waitin’ / Walk-on’s almost over.” It’s only when he can’t stall any longer that Berninger finds the fleeting motivation to keep at it. Perhaps it’s to further demonstrate this lack of will that the song is billed as featuring Sufjan Stevens, although his contribution is limited to a monosyllabic vocal harmony and later a single line: “What was the worried thing you said to me?” Berninger got this lyric from his wife, Carin Besser, who is credited as a songwriter on five of the new songs. While she continues to inspire Berninger’s content on the latest release, another source of inspiration informs the album title: “First Two Pages of Frankenstein.” Something in the opening prose of Mary Shelley’s classic novel spoke to Berninger, who recognized his own headspace in the frozen landscape described in the story’s opening letter. He promptly took to writing, even if about the same writer’s block and depression that had kept him idle. These efforts would be validated by not only Sufjan Stevens but Phoebe Bridgers and Taylor Swift, each of whom feature on the new album, as well as the London Contemporary Orchestra, which offered its services and considerably shaped the sound of the new recording.
Standout track “Tropic Morning News,” pulls its name from an ironic reference to doomscrolling, courtesy of Besser. This catchy tune fittingly presents its troubled lyrics in a major key. There are traces of the Cure in the eccentric precision of Berninger’s meter and the way guitar lines propagate from the chords. “Got up to seize the day / With my head in my hands feeling strange,” sings Berninger, in a likely reference to the cover art, which depicts a boy holding a sculpture of a head. “I was suffering more than I let on / The tropic morning news was on,” he continues, “There’s nothing stopping me now / From saying all the painful parts out loud.” This claim indeed informs much of the album. Berninger enlisted Phoebe Bridgers because, as he puts it, “She knows she’s good at defining what she hates about herself” and “because her voice is just such a tender, just warm hug.” If the latter point isn’t self-evident, it will become so in the context of “This Isn’t Helping.” Bridger’s contribution is modest, although less laughably so than Stevens.’’ Although her voice doesn’t dominate the mix, she adds a transformative glow to a song that might otherwise sanction Berninger’s story of writer’s block. At any rate, monotony makes eventual melodic departures more meaningful.
Bridgers also shines on “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend.” Berninger’s intonation in the opening lines and other points sounds quite like something you might hear from Morrissey. Heaven knows he’s miserable now — yet he resists giving into his own ideas. The song builds to its titular statement, another contribution of Besser, aimed specifically at the clinically depressed, around a piano hook, fit for a snowglobe. It’s a variation of the vocal refrain in “Grease In Your Hair,” an incessant two-line singsong that leads to little else. This fits the lyrics, which include “We’re in the middle of / Some kind of cosmic rearrangement / You were so funny then / And I kept thinking I would catch it.” The last of these lines, presumably about waiting in vain, repeats.
Whether or not he could “catch it,” Berninger humbly dotes elsewhere, “I keep what I can of you,” offering examples of “Split-second glimpses and snapshots and sounds / You in my New Order t-shirt.” Of course, this is a single, called “New Order T-shirt,” and the National have joined forces with the eponymous post punk-turned-electronic pioneers to release a commemorative t-shirt. Berninger wrote this song with his wife in mind. He has explained that he has a healthy marriage, but not without working and worrying. We get a glimpse of this in the daring “Eucalyptus,” which imagines the couple dividing their belongings after a breakup. A litany of questions — “What about the ornaments? / What if I reinvented again? / What about the moon drop light?” — builds to a refrain of “You should take it, ’cause I’m not gonna take it.”
It’s a relief that Berninger includes another standout, “The Alcott,” about two people with a chance to reconnect. Rather than dish out fairy tale fare, he has a bit of fun at his own expense, with some help from Taylor Swift, who is happy to oblige him in the album’s only real duet. The National’s Aaron Dessner has had a hand in producing two of Swift’s recent albums, and the whole band is listed as a feature on Swift’s song “Coney Island,” from 2021’s “Evermore.” “The Alcott” is not unlike that collaboration. Swift trades lines with Berninger in a playful dialogue. Together, they sing, “And you tell me the truth,” whereupon Swift adds, “Could it be easy this once?” They continue, in unison, “It’s the last thing I wanted,” and she again chimes in, “Everything that’s mine is a landmine.” The singalong ends with the two agreeing, “I tell you that I think I’m fallin’ / Back in love with you.”
An album full of relatively direct piano-and-string numbers concludes with a novel spin. The dawdling keys of In “Send For Me” are less portentous than those of the opener, as there is a minimal groove to them. A steady kick and taut snare reframe the whole affair, and the song takes on a vaguely trip-hop feel, with a discordant drone audible in the mix. Berninger sings, “If you’re ever in a psychiatric greenhouse / With slip-on shoes / Wipe a smile on the shatterproof windows / I’ll know what to do.” Upon the chorus of “Send for me whenever, wherever / Send for me, I’ll come and get you,” harmonies have taken shape around the previously clashing tone. It’s a perfect way to bring the record to closure, marking a complete resolution of the anxiety that appeared in the “walk-on,” 10 tracks later. “First Two Pages of Frankenstein” is considerably more straightforward than “I Am Easy to Find.” The choice to enlist various female vocalists on that album is the only relative constant. While the last work’s epic, conceptual designs compromised its accessibility, the followup is an easily digestible set of songs. The London Contemporary Orchestra contributes significantly to the album, allowing for an unprecedented degree of compositional realization. What is in short supply, this time around, is the rich eccentricity of songcraft that has set the National apart from so many of its indie rock peers over the last two decades. At a running time of 48 minutes, the latest album is roughly the same length as 2010’s “High Violet,” but lacks the creative scope and scale of that effort, as well as of the three releases since. The new orchestral detail doesn’t quite compensate for what is ultimately a bit of a light offering — by National standards. Still, future releases will likely find the band continuing to progress, and they are only possible because of this album, which finds the National merely managing to endure, in defiance of all odds.
“First Two Pages of Frankenstein” releases April 28 on Apple Music.