by Lowri Jones
‘Is this how this whole thing is gonna end?’ Matt Berninger tenderly sings on the opening track of The National’s ninth studio album “First Two Pages of Frankenstein”. The song “Once Upon A Poolside” – featuring gentle backing vocals from Sufjan Stevens over warm piano – lyrically explores the struggles that the five piece encountered making the record, as Berninger experienced writers block and questioned his ability to continue as a frontman. After almost 20 years of continuous touring and recording, a much-needed break by the band stretched out longer than planned as the pandemic brought uncertainty and highlighted the geographical and emotional distance between the band members. In press for the album, the band has said that frontman and lyricist Berninger experienced an almost yearlong period of burnout, depression and writers block, causing them to question if The National even had a future creating together. However, the anxieties, insecurities and disconnection of this period were what eventually inspired The National’s heartfelt new album.
Although The National has built a loyal fanbase and reputation on their skillful ability to channel anxiety and tension into their music, Berninger’s lyrics seem more direct and honest on “First Two Pages of Frankenstein” in comparison to the band’s previous records. Mental health struggles and subsequent feelings of isolation are candidly explored on tracks like “This Isn’t Helping” and Your Mind Is Not Your Friend”, which both feature haunting backing vocals by Phoebe Bridgers that compliment Berninger’s confessional baritone. “This Isn’t Helping” sees Berninger sing about the loneliness that can come from proximity to an optimistic, confident peer during a depressive episode, as thumping drums drive the musical swell.
Berninger’s lyrics can sometimes feel rooted in helplessness, but there is comfort to be found in his empathetic viewpoint on “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend”. The song title is directly inspired by Carin Besser, the wife and long-time lyric writing partner of Berninger, who frequently reminded Berninger that he shouldn’t follow the path of his gloomier thoughts. The twinkling piano line and strings provide a delicate backdrop for the heart wrenchingly candid lyrics ‘You inherited a fortune / From your mother’s side / Your sister didn’t get it all / She survived’. As the music briefly dies down to give space to the statement, you can feel how Berninger views his depression as both a weight but also something he can use in his creative expression to bring solace to others facing similar situations.
After their 2019 multi-vocalist record “I Am Easy To Find”, The National are no strangers to recruiting collaborators, and the contributions by Phoebe Bridgers on “First Two Pages of Frankenstein” are arguably the best features on the record. But the most anticipated collaboration is undoubtedly the band’s duet with Taylor Swift on “The Alcott”. For some, the collaboration between the self-proclaimed sad dads of rock and the world’s biggest popstar will be unexpected, but those aware of Aaron Dessner’s prolific songwriting and production work with Swift over the last few years are less likely to be surprised. Aaron Dessner has said in press for the album, that he was worried about putting Swift in the awkward position of having to turn down the offer to contribute lyrics and vocals to “The Alcott”, but when she responded she was onboard and had already penned her lines. A meditative piano line is the backbone of the duet, with Berninger and Swift taking on the roles of a couple where the man has once again let down his partner. As the two rally lyrics back and forth, Swift delivers some of the most scathing lines on the album (‘I’ve become one of your problems’), before delivering a soft closing line while a piano chord rings out. Regardless of your opinions on Swift’s guest feature, it’s hard to deny that it’s a damn catchy song.
For those unsure of “The Alcott”, the record jumps into “Grease In Your Hair” – a return to The National’s thumping, tense drums and urgent stream of consciousness lyrics that they’re synonymous with. ‘You give me such a future feeling,’ Berninger half sings, half cries, as the song majestically builds to layered, euphoric instruments that shine against lyrics about self-doubt and cosmic rearrangement. “Grease In Your Hair” is a masterclass in The National’s ability to induce expansive, boundless chest swells, which few other bands can emulate. It’s easy to understand why this and lead single “Tropic Morning News” were road tested when The National returned to touring last summer. “Tropic Morning News” – another song title directly inspired by Carin Besser, from a term she coined for doomscrolling – is driven by punchy programmed drums and a pulsing bassline that taps into a mounting feeling of dread, while soaring guitars occasionally jump up to lighten the mood. Despite Berninger questioning where his shared brain and wavelength has gone, either with his partner or his band, the confession that ‘There’s nothing stopping me now / From saying all the painful parts out loud’ gives hope that his ability to express his depression is itself a way to wade through the fog and reconnect.
For all the heavier subject matter on ‘First Two Pages of Frankenstein’, airy moments of sincerity in “New Order T-Shirt” and “Send For Me” serve to balance out the mood of the record. “New Order T-Shirt” is a stream of consciousness as Berninger recounts ‘split second glimpses and snapshots and sounds’ of intimate memories with a loved one, from the sharing of band t-shirts through to aquarium trips. The tender nostalgia and sweet acoustic guitars, reminiscent of “About Today” from the band’s debut EP “Cherry Tree”, was warmly received by fans on its release as the second single from the album. And album closer “Send For Me” radiates a similar warmth and reassurance, with Berninger woozily singing ‘send me for wherever, whenever / I’ll come and get you’ over calming, hypnotic synths and programmed drums. The lyrics express an earnest promise to act as a support network for loved ones whenever they need it, whether they’re dejected in an airport or ‘in a psychiatric greenhouse with slip on shoes’. With so much of the record centred around themes of depression, disconnection, and the absence of inspiration, the final track feels like the clouds breaking on The National, to bathe the reconnected band in sunlight once more.