A few months ago, the National started selling hoodies emblazoned with the words “SAD DADS,” embracing the cliché that this is a white guy melancholy factory. They’re good at white guy melancholy, yielding some of the genre’s finest records in the form of High Violet, Boxer, and Alligator. But (purely hypothetically), let’s say you got unceremoniously dumped last December and couldn’t make it through “Quiet Light” for weeks. Drenching yourself in this mopey discography becomes less appealing; it makes you wonder what the point is in building an aesthetic philosophy around despair.
I think the National were asking that question, too, because First Two Pages of Frankenstein is a shift away from malaise for the sake of it and toward the heart. This is not to say that there hasn’t been emotion in their work; it’s full of grand crescendos, urgent percussion, searing guitar parts, and the trademark Matt Berninger Scream. But the the National have been trending further toward abstraction since the Alligator days, culminating in 2019’s gorgeous-albeit-obtuse I Am Easy to Find. We’ve been left to spelunk through increasingly windy compositions to figure out what we’re supposed to be sad about. (I refer the skeptical reader to “Walk It Back” and “Dust Swirls in Strange Light”.)
First Two Pages of Frankenstein is not the cliché late-career-return-to-form record. The National wield each of their main elements to drill down to their heart. “Tropic Morning News” has a straight-eighth bass groove and builds drama by expanding a chorus, just like “Graceless” did before it. But the difference in these tracks is “Tropic Morning News” directly addresses another person, and as the drama ramps in the music, the narrative gets more desperate. However, “Graceless” cobbles together an impressionistic lyric that’s more cerebral than direct. “Graceless” is still one of the band’s finest tracks, but the direct address of “Tropic Morning News” signals they are using their toolkit to collapse form and meaning into one.
The refined vision is apparent from the opening track. “Once Upon a Poolside” reminds one of “About Today”, one of the National’s most gut-wrenching pieces. Like “Poolside”, “About Today” features Berninger mourning a failing relationship over a simple, repetitive instrumental. But the earlier song features a sporadic vocal as if Berninger intrudes on an ongoing story. In “Poolside”, the vocal drives the bus, with the piano and backing vocals lifting it. It’s a track that feels like love, the support of a close friend going through a difficult moment, rather than the despair and isolation that defines the previous work.
Perhaps the strongest sign of the heart of this record is “This Isn’t Helping”, where a chorus of band members (and Phoebe Bridgers) come in to support Berninger on the bridge. Communal, unison vocals are rare for the National (used to a significant effect on the recent standalone single “Weird Goodbyes”), and here they lift the narrative and make the meaning of the song a full-band affair, rather than the members offering a dramatic set-piece for Berninger to mope around in.
The back half of First Two Pages of Frankenstein, while not awash in the cathartic stylings of instant-classics like “Eucalyptus” and “Tropic Morning News”, finds the National dipping into their well-defined sonic repertoire to new effects. “Grease in Your Hair” features the thunderous, industrial drumming that Bryan Devendorf used to define Boxer, while album closer “Send For Me” recalls the most tender moments of the moody “Sleep Well Beast”.
Whereas I Am Easy to Find was defined by its entourage of guest musicians, the features in First Two Pages of Frankenstein are much more subdued. The most dramatic is Taylor Swift, who gets full verses on “The Alcott” and offers a better counterbalance to Berninger’s voice than we had seen on their earlier collaboration (“Coney Island” off Swift’s 2020 release Evermore). With Berninger and Swift each writing their own lyrics, it feels like two people at an impasse. The styles and vocabularies don’t quite sync up, despite clearly being about the same thing. It works well, but your humble reviewer wants more Phoebe Bridgers.
The National are being real with us. While one sometimes gets the impression that their object is shock and awe – an overwhelming, perfectly crafted setting for the musings of one guy’s despair – this time, they ask us to come in. It’s a subtle but significant shift for a group over 20 years into their career. First Two Pages of Frankenstein is still obviously the National’s work and sound, but it wants to reach out more than they ever have.