To anyone on the outside looking in, The National have pretty much always been an insufferable band. You could accuse them of having listless mumblings and songs that are entirely too self-satisfied and, perhaps the greatest sin of all, being boring as hell. For those willing to look beneath the surface a bit, the band was a sprawling, elegant beast who could rattle off universal musings with athletic ease and had one helluva rhythm section to boot. But, look, I get all the complaints. There was a band at my college named All the Wine and featured four dudes who desperately needed therapy instead of calling themselves “Sad Dads” in a desperate bid to endear their darkness to any helpless woman they gestured to after a few Tecates. The schtick is
annoying, but The National were the forefathers of that schtick. But you can only hold on to the feeling of being carried away by cheerleaders for so long and The National, too, had finally aged to the level that their musings had always suggested. The tempos became a little slower, the dynamics a little more flat, the poetry a little more sanitized, and Phoebe Bridgers features began to read an awful lot like a ransom note, culminating in this year’s awful The First Two Pages of Frankenstein
then comes as a bit of surprise, another collection of songs ostensibly from the same writing sessions that delivered their worst album yet. Another stab to present The National as their “most mature” and “darkest-sounding” yet, or whatever marketing buzzwords sound nicest. The results, miraculously, do slow the skid for the band becoming a complete legacy act, but the issues that have flared up over the years with the band’s flat, repetitive structures are unfortunately symptoms of the band still kind of accepting their long, protracted decline down the drain. It’s an overly long, frustrating album that sounds more like a Greatest Hits Vol.3 of the band than something with a clear arc or thesis to ground everything down.
There are cuts on here like the title track, which features the aforementioned Bridgers casting another unwanted shadow of the kingdom of “indie” music, and Weird Goodbyes, featuring another “indie” superstar in Bon Iver, that frankly make me go blind from staring at my watch. Both songs have the band’s worst tendencies from the last few years on display: lowstakes and uninteresting lyrics that sound like an old man complaining his 2 for $20 at Applebee’s is incorrect but it’s no big deal, unnecessary guest stars that serve as more of a networking flex and appeal to Gen Z than add to the song, and their brilliant rhythm section being replaced by a metronome. These moments completely sink any hope of the band fully reclaiming their old glory for an entire project and are so bafflingly boring that you truly wonder what they were thinking these songs would illuminate or stir in any listener.
But then there are some brilliant moments that are among the band’s best in the last decade or so that only further the seemingly evergreen question of “Where has this
band been?” “Space Invader” almost fools you into believing it’s another entry of La Croix songs before elegantly yawning into an awe-inspiring outro where Bryan Devendorf completely explodes from all the tension that has built up from being forsaken for three albums. “Crumble” features Roseanne Cash and, in perhaps the year’s biggest twist actually adds to the song by not holding it hostage as a thinly-veiled Tik Tok stitch by being a gentle audio caress that harkens back to the band’s days of being far more prescient and tender. Best or worst of all, “Smoke Detector” ends the album in such quality fashion that you almost want to go back and listen to the whole thing in an fruitless effort to wonder what you
had missed. Sounding like a cross between the band’s old piss and vinegar days and a little bit like Lou Reed, the band is allowed to actually sound like a band and jam their way through a hypnotic and demonic sounding firework display. Seriously though, where the hell has this
is not a good album. There are good moments, there are good songs, but it’s not a good album. Instead, it’s a confirmation of whatever priors a listener has about the group with just enough to sink the general feeling on the album and just enough to also make it not seem like a complete waste of time. The National are never going back to being insanely consistent and beloved group of yesteryear. Everyone’s too old and prolific and rich now to haggle with their demons enough to produce a classic. But maybe that was expecting too much in the first place. If we get a “Smoke Detector” or “Space Invaders” on every album, maybe that’s enough.