Review Summary: Apology ha ha?
Once upon a poolside, early assessments of a new National album seemed to chart the state of indie as a whole: frontman Matt Berninger’s gin-soaked ruminations on the mundane were a cryptographic key for a thousand B-listers’ fumblings after love in an age of despondency; the Dessner brothers’ meticulous arrangements made for one of the most refined less-is-more approaches to contemporary verse/chorus songwriting; drummer Bryan Devendorf’s formidable performances brought a masterful sense of urgency to songs otherwise epitomised restraint. No other band of their profile seemed as capable of saying so much with so little, and thus we forensically examined each and every one of their fresh happenings as the apparent latest paving stone on indie’s most well-to-do promenade – right up until 2017’s comparatively experimental Sleep Well Beast
, that is.
Cut to the present, and the National have seemed less and less like a band firing on all cylinders, and increasingly franchise-esque. This goes from I Am Easy to Find
’s at-home-with-Berninger-and-Besser traipse of an art project to Aaron Dessner’s endless string of production credits on records that no longer demand any introduction, to friendly uncles Sufjan Stevens and Justin Vernon dropping in and out of the frame like chatroom guests. This trajectory hit an unsettlingly bleak nadir on First Two Pages of Frankenstein
earlier this year – though advertised as a sombre triumph, proof of Berninger’s victory against his bleakest battle yet with depression and writer’s block, that album’s dearth of engaging songs and jumbled recycling of the band’s most facile tropes were practically insulting even by I Am Easy to Find
’s pasty standards. The kindest reception one could afford it was to manifest the band a pat on the back and quietly look the other way. It might have been better to forget it entirely, but the band’s new
new record Laugh Track
has arrived as a fresh response to the same crisis. Well, then…
Written at the same time as ...Frankenstein
but recorded on an ad hoc basis following its release, the line we’re sold here is that this record picks up from the creative gap its predecessor was at such pains to bridge, spotlighting the band’s rebound in earnest. In practice, the pairing is more akin to chasing a day-bleaching hangover with herbal tea and a midafternoon nap: the worst may have passed, but there is little here that substantively rectifies the underlying issues with the National’s ongoing phase. Even a cursory listen will point to the band’s most listless songwriting (“Dreaming”, “Coat on a Hook”), their struggle to maintain premium standards against contemporaries once rightly considered beneath them (the tepid bustle of “Deep End (Paul’s in Pieces)” barely cuts it as a poor man’s Interpol, while “Space Invader” recalls Gang of Youths with its glossy fumble at a blockbuster payoff), and their penchant for superfluous features (look no further than Phoebe Bridgers’ impersonation of tape echo on the title-track). Not too promising as first prognoses go.
Credit where it’s due, Laugh Track
does a better job than either of its predecessors at rallying the band’s strengths, even if it’s often unclear whether they’re portents of future potential or simply residue from watermarks past. Opener “Alphabet City” sees Berninger slip into his familiar register for his most rousing set of vocal melodies since Sleep Well Beast
, while “Turn Off the House” reps a Dessner-patented looping hook that completely eschews the impact of a striking first impression in favour of a deeper, attritional impression akin to the likes of “Brainy” and “Green Gloves” (though Bryce rather than Aaron is credited here). For my money, the strongest track here is the one that leans more flatteringly into the spirit of franchise-era National: “Crumble” sees guest vocalist Rosanne Cash succeed where four years of session performers have failed, offering a rosy foil to Berninger that scans as thoroughly integral to the song. Accompanied as such, Berninger rounds off the mission he tackled so laboriously on I Am Easy to Find
: navigating the emotional contingency and personal vulnerability that accompany any enduring romantic partnership. The frankness of his current lyrical style is hit-or-miss across the rest of album, at times approaching the candid tedium of a self-help journal (you’re the opposite of an open book
earns a particular groan), but on “Crumble” it eschews eloquence entirely and converges on a single open-hearted sentiment: If you say that it's true / but you don't know what to do / and it's only because you love me [...] I, I’m going to crumble
. It doesn’t land quite right on paper, yet a songwriter is not a poet: with Berninger’s velvet tones behind it, the warmth of that central line makes for his most affecting performance since Sleep Well Beast
This amounts to one sole major highlight, though a strong one. The jury is still out on whether the remaining tracks’ soft flourishes adequately address those lurking still got it?
questions, and, perhaps controversially, this goes as far as the twin epics “Space Invader” and “Smoke Detector”. The former strings together a serviceable refrain with a clamorous finale that coasts off band chemistry without rising above the sum-of-its-parts songwriting-wise; those bracing final minutes are a welcome flex given the studio-heavy trappings of recent National records, but I question whether anything else in the song rises above the bread and butter of the band’s current era. “Smoke Detector” is more interesting and certainly more unique in their discography with its jam-like sprawl: the full-band dynamic gives this one a rousing heartbeat unheard since Alligator
(it surprises me not one bit that it was recorded during a soundcheck while on tour). As a situational shot-in-the-arm, it’s an invigorating closer; as a standalone song, its value stems more than anything else from being an all-too-rare insight into the band clearly enjoying themselves playing their own music.
Take that for what it’s worth: the National have sounded tired for a long while, and have been an easy band to tire of as such. Too much proliferation, too much cross-pollination, potentially too little too late when it comes to, well, being a band again. Laugh Track
makes several welcome adjustments to their present-day formula, but it’s hardly a wholesale reorientation – and make no mistake, the National are still very much in need of one. Their once-peerless vision for indie lives on lucratively in the shrink-wrapped production strategies Aaron Dessner has done so well repurposing for the kitsch of Taylor Swift’s increasingly tepid ‘20s oeuvre (along with fuck-knows-what he thought he was doing with Ben Howard in 2021), to the slew of Dave Le'aupepe-esque mumble-gentry who misplace candour for depth, and, some would argue, Phoebe Bridgers’ ongoing quest to do as little as possible with the most skeletal of songwriting and endless asthmatic feints at a tenable vocal melody. What once resonated as a stirring reaction to the most oppressive subtleties of white-collar gloom and marital anxieties now just scans like a token complement to your sertraline prescription; no-one likes watching a legacy turn into a commodity.