Review Summary: We'll see if it changes the scene
For full transparency’s sake, The National is my favorite band of all-time. Boxer and High Violet are amongst my favorite albums of all-time (the former currently perched at #2 on my list, the latter sitting at #5). Countless songs, particularly from their incredible stretch of releases from Alligator through Sleep Well Beast that propelled them to indie rock demigod status, have sewn themselves into the fabrics of my life since I heard the first infectious 1-2 snare hit on “Apartment Story” back in 2008. However, their past couple of releases, I Am Easy to Find and First Two Pages of Frankenstein have featured the weakest material of their careers. Frankenstein, in particular, sounded so lifeless and uninspired for a bulk of the album that it felt like a strange, sad sendoff for the indie rock titans. So when it was announced that they were releasing a second album for 2023 this past weekend at the Homecoming festival in Cincinnati, I couldn’t help but feel a little tepid towards the news. Not only has First Two Pages of Frankenstein been out since late April, but this was their first album release in four years. To think that they would put out two albums in one year is unheard of, let alone unprecedented for them as a band. But would this album bring more of the same? The fact that the album cover is practically identical to that of Frankenstein did not help to quell my initial trepidation.
Laugh Track forces me to confront my objectivity as a music fan. It raises a lot of questions for me:
Do I like this album simply because it’s an improvement from both First Two Pages of Frankenstein and I Am Easy to Find? Is that improvement only marginal or is it significant?
Do I only like it because it feels like the closest they’ve come to sounding like The National of old in six years? Is my bias as a fan creeping in a bit too much?
Is this album actually good?
At one point, a more existential question I’ve repeatedly asked myself over the past few years crept in:
Have I forgotten how to just enjoy music?
After exhaustively listening to the album throughout this week there is no doubt that I enjoy Laugh Track considerably more than First two Pages of Frankenstein. No, it isn’t brimming with a plethora of new ideas and directions. The drumming on “Deep End (Paul’s In Pieces)” recalls “Don’t Swallow the Cap," the horns on “Hornets” remind me a little bit of “England," and the gentle guitar melody of “Coat on a Hook” sounds like it pulled direct inspiration from “About Today.” Do any of the songs on here stack up against anything from the band’s apex run? You could make the argument that a select couple achieve this level, but I don’t personally feel they even compare to some of the lesser acclaimed, yet no less great, tunes like a “Hard to Find” let alone the pinnacles of their discography. Even my favorite highlights from Laugh Track fall just short in that regard and that’s ok. Are tracks like “Dreaming,” “Coat On a Hook” and “Tour Manager” the most engaging songs? They’re not, but I also don’t see myself completely dismissing and skipping over them either, which I can’t say the same for First Two Pages of Frankenstein. That alone marks a stark improvement, in my eyes.
What I can say as I’ve digested this latest album is that it offers some refinement and course correction that the band has been missing over the past several years. One of the most obvious differences between Laugh Track and the band’s earlier release from this year is the use of Bryan Devendorf. His work on the drum kit has always been the heartbeat that spurs The National’s overall performance forward. Frankenstein used more electronic percussion instead of live drumming, a complete disservice to Devendorf’s prowess. Laugh Track rights that wrong with great payoffs, none more immense than the outro of “Space Invader,” which is propelled by thunderous snare hits and crashing cymbals. Combined with sharp strings, fierce guitars and Matt Berninger’s descent into the furthest depths of his lower register that nears growls, the band rises to the occasion with fiery results. It’s the seminal moment of creative liberation the band desperately needed after releasing the most rudderless material of their careers these past few years and it should come as no surprise that Devendorf is the catalyst.
“Crumble” spotlights the best feature on a National record in 2023 with Rosanne Cash displaying the proper way to offer a counter vocal to Berninger. Whereas other artists featured on The National’s latest work have felt unnecessary and in effect have been reduced to afterthoughts, Cash feels vital to the song. “Turn Off the House” provides an arresting listening experience by subtly weaving different elements into the mix before becoming a cascade of beauty by the end. It’s moments like these that I’ve always found difficult to properly articulate to my friends what makes The National so impactful to me because on the surface what they create sounds so simplistic. It’s moments like these that made me fall in love with the band in the first place.
The biggest swerve is reserved for last. “Smoke Detector” is startling in that it sounds like The National going back to their Alligator days nearly twenty years ago. The only thing that is missing is Berninger screaming like he used to on songs like “Mr. November” and “Available,” but the other elements are there: Berninger’s sprawling performance, the tension coiled within the Dessners’ guitar playing, Devendorf’s militant precision on the kit trying to hold everything and everyone together. It makes you wonder (as a previous review mentioned) where this version of the band has been and why has it been dormant for this long? Did they simply catch lightning in a bottle during a soundcheck or could this spell a return to form in the future?
A few things cannot be denied: I got chills listening to “Turn Off the House” and the second-half of “Space Invader” for the first time, I couldn’t help but crack a smile listening to the youthful energy of “Deep End (Paul’s In Pieces)” the second go-round and was utterly flabbergasted by “Smoke Detector” on the initial spin. Conversely, the only song that gives me any semblance of these types of reactions on First Two Pages of Frankenstein is “Once Upon a Poolside.” These types of moments were severely absent on the past two projects and while Laugh Track isn’t overflowing with them, they’re still there. That has to be worth something, right?
The National could’ve definitely trimmed the fat on here by taking out some of the weaker cuts like “Dreaming” and “Tour Manager” and combining them with the strongest tracks from Frankenstein to create one cohesive project, which most likely would have garnered more adoration from fans and acclaim from critics. Or they could have simply reversed the release dates and called First Two Pages of Frankenstein a B-sides album and that might have swung the general opinion in their favor as well. It’s easy to sit here as a fan and say that it’s baffling that the band decided to sit on this batch of songs. At this point, I’m simply happy they decided to release them.
Where do The National go from here? Can they possibly tap into the level of showmanship of “Space Invader” or the writing, urgency and manic energy of “Smoke Detector” for an entire album at this point in their careers? Maybe, maybe not. Have the album’s highlights seduced me into a slightly optimistic rating? Time will tell. But Laugh Track has sparked a hope that the band still has something left in the tank and that they can continue to put out great albums, even if they don’t quite match their outstanding, elongated peak spanning over a decade. That flicker of hope is all I could ever ask of Laugh Track and I’m happy that it delivered. And even if this was the last album from my favorite band, this would be a much more gratifying note.