By now The National have become profs in the Indie Rock University and have made tenure. The Brooklyn band by way of Ohio can do no wrong. Their 2010 album High Violet cemented their stature as the voice for the broken-hearted and world weary coffeehouse intellectual. Lead vocalist Matt Berninger has always had the look of a disheveled Literary professor or poet laureate, as opposed to a singer in a rock band. The two sets of brothers, Dessner and Devendorf, that make up the rest of the band provide a solid musical backdrop for Berninger’s lyrical musings. The albums sound big, urgent, and musically and culturally significant.
Since their 2001 debut The National have been consistent in releasing new music, with their biggest gap being 2019’s I Am Easy To Find to now. On the band’s newest album in four years, First Two Pages Of Frankenstein sees The National in a more reserved place, songs more closely connected to the folksier side of indie rock, as opposed to previous albums more ornate and dense sonic touches.
Album opener “Once Upon A Poolside” is tender and wistful, hanging on an aching piano line with vocal touches added courtesy of Sufjan Stevens. It’s a beautiful song that lands heavy in the chest. “Eucalyptus” is acoustic-led with Berninger’s vocals having a touch of Win Butler in the chorus. “New Order T-Shirt” has subtle electronic touches with wilting keys while vocally the song feels like a short story put to music.
First Two Pages Of Frankenstein has a few guest artists helping. Besides the aforementioned Sufjan, The National work with both Taylor Swift and two songs with Phoebe Bridgers. Bridgers sings on both “This Isn’t Helping” and “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend”, with the former keeping low key but lush while the latter sinks heavily in the chest. Taylor Swift sings on “The Alcott”, adding a gorgeous counterpoint to Berninger’s tenor in the chorus.
First Two Pages Of Frankenstein has The National releasing an album of subtle ballads and low key, maudlin songs. “Grease In Your Hair” picks up a bit, but overall these are quiet songs for quiet moments. Not disappointing, just not as epic as what’s come before.