Review Summary: There’s a lot I’ve not forgotten, but I’ve let go of other things
After seeing The National live last year, my wife turned to me and said “wow, I’ve never heard so many songs about depression”. This made me chuckle - while she wasn’t exactly wrong, I’d never heard someone make such a blunt statement on the subject.
I begin this review with that anecdote mostly because it’s kinda funny, but also because it ties into a broader point about this band. Most of the songs we heard that night were from the group’s widely-perceived prime, heavily pulled from the High Violet
or Trouble Will Find Me
era, and while some of the tunes are utterly anthemic, the general vibe makes for pretty downcast listening. But, while The National’s musical style has long attracted not just the clinically depressed but also the broader masses of people weary of the travails of middle-class tedium, back in the day there was never really anything heavy-handed about the formula. Sure, not everyone really “got” it, with plenty of detractors finding them milquetoast, sleepy, or boring, but for those who understood the appeal, The National were on top of the world (musically, if not emotionally), cranking out subtle but revelatory tunes without breaking a sweat. Coming back to an album like Boxer
, even now, the most striking thing about it is the utterly unassuming feel - the lyrics are wittily charming and the instrumentation is snappily executed, but the band is never trying to be anything they’re not, just simply doing what they do at the highest level imaginable. The National’s inherent melancholy was an inescapable part of the package, but the key attraction was that the band was making near perfectly crafted indie rock.
Somewhere along the way, things stopped being so “easy” for The National. Recent releases have felt like the band increasingly laboring to fill a role as songsmiths of sad indie fare, a position for which they’re well-suited, but which no longer feels natural. The primary division among longtime fans seems to be over whether Sleep Well Beast
or I Am Easy To Find
was the first record in which the group could no longer live up to the lofty expectations they’d created for themselves. Few dispute, though, that First Two Pages of Frankenstein
, released in early 2023, was a fairly dismal nadir, even by the reduced expectations of the crew’s later era. Simply put, this was the first time that plenty of fans found themselves confronting a whole host of songs which were about as lamely forgettable as the band’s haters had long alleged. So, yes, the abrupt release of a second 2023 LP five months later had fans in a tizzy - perhaps an unexpected renaissance was in the cards - or perhaps simply a desperate last gasp for continued relevance from a fading band.
If Laugh Track
has a notable kinship with its ill-loved predecessor (heavy reliance on somber atmospherics, plenty of famous artists getting features, and a baffling second adaptation of an already questionable piece of album art), in the final analysis this album feels most comfortable as a follow-up to Sleep Well Beast
, with which it shares a similarly dark aesthetic, an experimental tinge, and a generally languid pace occasionally punctuated by bursts of rock vigor which have been less and less common as The National’s discography has advanced. The discerning reader will note, of course, that two other albums have been released and six long years have transpired since Sleep Well Beast
, and it’s this yawning gap which, to me, most explains the widely disparate reactions which Laugh Track
has inspired. For some, the disillusionment from two mostly-panned releases has been bubbling up, resulting in a surge of enthusiasm when The National release something (anything!) which suggests there’s still oil in the tank. For others, the marked recent decline has led to a reasonable wariness, feeding a perception of the band’s latest as no more than a slightly better-executed set of mopey ballads alongside a handful of energetic cuts, fit best as a demonstration of how far our standards have fallen.
I won’t say either of these factions are wrong, per se. Laugh Track
is my pick for best The National album since Sleep Well Beast
(not exactly high praise, but still) - easily outpacing the oft-bland First Two Pages of Frankenstein
and feeling more coherent and consistent than the messy tracklisting of I Am Easy to Find
, even if the latter album arguably includes a superior set of highlight tracks. But it’s also pretty jarring to call this a return to form for The National and then throw on an album (like Boxer
) from the group’s genuine prime, given the smooth and effortless feel which was once at the band’s beck and call. You could talk me into declaring the bleak beauty of “Turn Off the House” or the Americana-leaning “Crumble” or the real rock song energy of “Smoke Detector” constitutes a true The National classic, but this praise doesn’t negate the fact that The National have a back catalog featuring multiple albums where most of the tracklist comfortably fits into that meritorious category. There’s something to be said for vibes, and while Laugh Track
undoubtedly has late-era The National putting their best foot forward, it still feels like the band is dragging themselves through quicksand to produce results which were once instantaneously at their fingertips.
If the classic feeling isn’t quite there, though, there’s still plenty of magic to be found. While it’s the sprawling and energetic pieces which seem to be attracting the most praise here (specifically “Space Invader” and “Smoke Detector”), and not without reason, the slow and quiet tunes deserve some acknowledgement as well. The overwhelming preponderance of this kind of vaguely artsy (and often kinda boring) ballads in the band’s music of recent years has been a bone of contention, but the songs of this ilk here are mostly pretty damn good. Here and there, Berninger throws out an awkward attempt at poetry (“you’re the opposite of an open book
” from “Coat on a Hook” perhaps being the worst offender), but mostly Laugh Track
’s lyrics are straight-up great, in the pensive way we’ve come to expect. “Hornets” might be the biggest shining star in this respect, featuring not one but both of my favorite kinds of The National lines: the witty+sad (“why do they say everything’s for the best, when everyone knows that it’s not?
”) and the basically meaningless but gut level profound-feeling (“how do you get rid of hornets before the weekend?
”). From a strictly lyrical perspective, “Weird Goodbyes” and the opening half of “Space Invader”, before the instrumentals kick into gear and take center stage, both have tremendous value, even when measured against the collective’s finest output. Meanwhile, “Crumble” might be the band’s most infectious song in many years, and when Berninger warns “I’m gonna crumble”, his voice delicately entwined with Rosanne Cash’s in an unusually-compelling feature, it sounds like he means it.
All in all, if Laugh Track
isn’t enough to vanquish the ghosts of the band’s past triumphs (they’re looming translucently all over this review, after all), but its relative success should be enough to make dedicated fans (I’m one) hopeful that The National’s future trajectory isn’t just a steady slope downwards. It’s now evident that at least a little fire remains, not completely extinguished by a host of side projects or by being sucked into that weird Taylor Swift-adjacent commercial indie sphere. While it’s undeniably worrisome that the band’s route to success here feels most concretely like an attempt at a do-over, a wink to the audience to forget the last half-decade and two unpopular albums and instead hew a new trail based tenuously upon their last widely-praised effort (Sleep Well Beast
), the crew’s second attempt in five months to alleviate their decaying reputation is a qualified win, reminding us that not only does the band still remember how to rock out, but that even in the quieter moments, well-written songs with a sedate and melancholy backdrop voiced by a sad baritone singer are sometimes all you need. The future’s uncertain, and I’m still a little wary of expecting too much, but The National’s provided us music fans with enough sonic gold over the past few decades to deserve a little faith. Here's hoping that they won’t fuck us over.