Review: The National – First Two Pages Of Frankenstein

Artwork for The National's 2023 album First Two Pages of Frankenstein

A cathartic ninth studio album from The National.

It’s a (very) old lyric by 40’s crooners The Inkspots, but it can still work now: “Into each and every life, the rain is bound to fall/But too much of that has started to fall in mine.”

Over their lengthy career The National haven’t so much as embraced melancholia as been in a state of neatly balanced symbiosis with it, their music and writer Matt Berninger’s words reflecting back scenes from an apparent lifetime of drizzly Sunday afternoons.

First Two Pages Of Frankenstein refines this further and drags in the peripherals to the extent that at times it feels like the notes from a particularly involved session of therapy.

The National’s ninth album is littered with analogous references to getting help as, for example, ‘If you’re ever in a psychiatric greenhouse/With slip on shoes’, Berninger croaks on closer Send for Me. “Wipe a smile on the shatterproof windows/I’ll know what to do.”

A step back is probably required. After 2019’s I Am Easy To Find and his first solo album Serpentine Prison released a year later, Berninger endured a long spell of writer’s block compounded by depression and anxiety.

To the cynical outsider this might’ve been regarded as coming with the territory, however for him where feelings once were muses in of themselves it took returning to the road with the band and the support of his wife Karin Bess to open up the doors once more.

The downside of using the characters sketched out as props is that some of the adversity they face can feel a little contrived.

Take Eucalyptus, a desultory ballad that narrates a very (too?) adult dividing of the domestic possessions, the ebbing piano soundtracking grown up negotiations about houseplants, records and undeveloped pictures that are haunting a forgotten camera like ghosts.

If there the physical artefacts of everything that’s gone faultlessly to shit are unwanted by either parties like they were a war’s empty shell casings, on the other hand New Order T-shirt’s stream of consciousness prose is made up of the sort of highly curated good memories we reward ourselves with after the grief begins to ebb away.

As with its predecessor, First Two Pages Of Frankenstein shares some of the public burden with collaborators who are no strangers to the territory, but the results are mixed.

The tone setting austerity of opener Once Upon A Poolside features Sufjan Stevens – although whatever the contribution, it’s buried somewhere in the ether.

Phoebe Bridgers gets two bites at the cherry but, given the scale of her talent, it’s impossible not to conclude she’s under-relied on in just offering a sprinkling of backing vocals. The opportunity feels most passed by on This Isn’t Helping, and whilst the superior Your Mind Is Not Your Friend is one of the album’s highlights, she remains very much on the periphery.

There is absolutely no surprise however at who steals the show; in a seemingly endless Imperial phase, attempting to hide Taylor Swift’s luminosity would be impossible even if tried.

On The Alcott admittedly the touches are light, formed in wispy duetting and a bit part, tender call and response, but temporarily at least that’s enough to lift the dry, spare tone.

There’s time for one more peak with the tumbling flip of Ice Machines, but for listeners even that resembles the bipolar experience of trying to catch a butterfly.

First Two Pages Of Frankenstein is the sound of Matt Berninger’s personal rain turning into a downpour, but it’s largely wrapped in a frustrating blanket of numbness.

We’ll see him again, same time, next week.

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