The National, the Brooklyn-based band originally from Cincinnati, have released their ninth album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein, a record that confirms the band’s talent in exploring the desolate Midwest. The album features collaborations with Taylor Swift, Phoebe Bridgers, and Sufjan Stevens, which elevate the group’s sound, making it one of their best releases to date.
The album starts with “Once Upon a Poolside,” an introspective track characterized by a plaintive piano line, and ethereal backing vocals by Stevens, a fellow Mid-West. native, that starts the album off with a sense of whistful sparseness. “Eucalyptus” is another stand-out track, where the lyrics ask questions about what people take with them when relationships end. The song takes on an early-U2 level of drama with a build of moody, striking guitar and tumbling drums.
“Tropic Morning News” surprises with a chilled-out Joy Division beat that quickly builds the track as it begins to take-off, featuring Berninger’s deep vocals, which contrast with the upbeat instrumentation. This is the track that is said to have saved the album, as Berninger was going through a form of creative dryness. It was, he has said, “the first time it ever felt like maybe things really had come to an end” for the band. Berninger’s wife, Carin Besser, helped him with the lyrics, and the resulting song reflects this feeling of overcoming a difficult time.
This signalled stalemate that was not far from signalling the end of the Cincinnati band, whose members were then running up and down the country. In particular, Aaron Dessner, who everyone from Ed Sheeran to Ben Howard has been clamouring for since he masterfully negotiated Taylor Swift’s folk turn by producing both her albums, Folklore and Evermore, back to back in 2020. “We’ve said before that things felt fragile, but I think this time it was different. It was real and I think it was necessary. We needed to let go and accept that it could end,” says his twin Bryce Dessner.
The album also features a proper duet with Taylor Swift on “The Alcott,” where her vocals hold their own against Berninger’s deep masculinity. On the melancholic ballad “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend”, Berninger invites songwriter of the moment Phoebe Bridgers to join him on vocals before reuniting with her on “This Isn’t Helping”, however, her harmonies are more like a spoonful of sugar atop Berninger’s roughness, rather than an equal match.
Despite a period of creative roadblocks and setbacks, Berninger and the band managed to deliver an album that continues to write The National’s great history. With the help of fellow musicians, including the Dessner and Devendorf brothers, they overcame this difficult time and delivered an album that confirms their talent for exploring the Midwest’s desolation. The album ends with “Send for Me,” a track that promises to answer any SOS. It’s a reminder that the band is not done yet and that they still have a lot to offer. First Two Pages of Frankenstein is a testimony to the band’s talent and experimentation, proving that after nine albums, they still have a lot to offer to their fans.