When The National dropped ‘Tropic Morning News’ as the lead single for their new album in January, it very much felt like the Cincinnati indie icons had delivered a top tier track to rival their 2007-2013 peak (the four records from Boxer to Trouble Will Find Me).
As refreshing a song as I’d heard in a long, long time. The boys best in quite some time. You see, their last two albums (2017’s Sleep Well Beast and 2019’s I Am Easy To Find) were solid enough to maintain the band’s status as an elite artist without reaching the same levels they’d hit a decade plus before.
“When Matt (Berninger) came in with that song in the depths of his depression, it felt like a turning point for us,” reveals guitarist Aaron Dressner, one which was said to be co-written with the frontman’s wife Carin Besser. The title itself is a nickname for “doomscrolling”: the overexposure to bad news online and the effects it can have on one’s mental health. Five minutes of classic The National - deceptively rousing, gripping from start to finish and lyrically honest (“I was suffering more than I let on / The tropic morning news was on / There's nothing stopping me now / From saying all the painful parts out loud” admits Matt in the chorus).
Over the 41 minute run time, the first preview single is rarely bettered. But a few tracks do give it a run for its money. Similar to Sleep Well Beast’s opener ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ (2017), First Two Pages of Frankenstein begins with a gut punch and a tearjerker. ‘Once Upon A Poolside’ sees Matt’s depression struggles compete with his job as a frontman, the juxtaposition between climbing on stage to perform and struggling to hold a conversation off it. A beautiful piano riff carries the emotion in equal impact, the singer joined by a subtle Sufjan Stevens chorus collaboration – a hair rising start.
“Your imagination / Is in an awful place” opens Berninger on ‘Your Mind Is Not Your Friend’, again pouring out his inner struggles. Like the album curtain raiser, indie royalty features alongside the singer, this time in the form of Phoebe Bridgers. The guest vocals merely add another layer of depth to the singer’s woes and this works to the song’s benefit. My main criticism of 2019’s I Am Easy To Find was how it became too bogged down in collaboration, quickly losing character and the identity to what you’d want from The National.
However, despite the vast improvement, ‘The Alcott’ finds us back in the territory of their largely forgettable last record (ok, so to insult the album and not point out how gorgeous ‘Light Years’ is would be a sin…). Obviously getting Taylor Swift to perform on your album is a big deal, what with her being one of the world’s biggest pop stars and all. But Taylor’s presence is too much here. For me, it results in gritted teeth envy that she isn’t trying to compliment Matt’s vocals, instead, unlike Bridgers and Stevens, trying to steal the show (whether on purpose or not). Dare I say it, unlike Phoebe Bridgers - and despite how hard she tries to be an indie folk star - Taylor Swift’s voice simply doesn’t fit on an album by The National. The clash of Berninger’s classic Baritone voice and her sweet, pop star vocal just doesn’t work. The albums most skippable track by some distance.
Talking of sweet though, this is something The National achieve on ‘New Order T-Shirt’. The simplicity of the acoustic plucking matched with the nostalgic filled lyrics possesses an innocent charm of The National’s earlier work. Aaron Dressner even admitted to it being one of his favourite ever by the band and it ranks high up on this record. One of the album track favourites has to be the mid-point ‘Alien’, Berninger comparing his isolation to that of an extra-terrestrial: “I'll go outside, cry, and come right back in / Drop down like an alien”. The understated orchestrations also add so much character.
The second half doesn’t quite hold our attention on the same level as our first, the reward only coming through with time and patience – which will no doubt be given by ardent The National fans but perhaps not by your more casual music listeners. Though by the third listen I’m completely won over.
First Two Pages of Frankenstein does not match the high of The National’s heyday, but achieves the status as their best piece of work in a decade. Of course, ‘Tropic Morning News’ and the pre-released singles are the tunes to revisit the most, though there’s plenty of gems over this record to put it in the early conversation for album of the year contention.
Not that you’d expect any different, but the production from beginning to end is beautiful, shining a light on Matt Berninger’s heartfelt woes and isolation. It all leaves us with feelings of empathy and a gratitude we still have a band as classy as The National still producing excellent new music.