Lore and storytelling play an outsized role in every album The National release, and on their ninth album ‘First Two Pages of Frankenstein’, released in April, the narrative was more central than ever. Following their collaborations with Taylor Swift on her pandemic albums ‘Folklore’ and ‘Evermore’, their profile had increased, even if the band dynamics felt “fragile” amidst life changes and frontman Matt Berninger’s writer’s block. Those struggles felt blatant in the music, though NME called it “their best in a decade” and said they’d succeeded in “proving that they can do this as much to themselves as to a waiting world”.
‘Laugh Track’ is billed as a “surprise double album”, though whether that’s based on the no-notice release (aside a few pesky fan forum leaks), or that the desire to release this material crept up on them. Speaking to NME earlier this year, Aaron Dessner revealed that over 25 songs had been completed in the earlier sessions and that he was proud of the “conviction” the band had when selecting the 11 tracks that made up ‘First Two Pages…’.
That was until early June, when the band began soundchecking what would become closing track ‘Smoke Detector’, a near-eight minute jam that packs the jagged edges that some thought were missing from ‘First Two Pages…’. The performance from that stage is preserved here in mostly-original form, stunningly raw, Berninger’s spark of a phrase “Smoke detector, smoke detector / All you need to do is protect her” as stark and memorable as his best. The song has since become a live staple on their recent summer tour.
That immediacy, reminiscent of ‘Alligator’, contributes to ‘Laugh Track’’s success. The band re-recorded nine of the new songs from that existing batch, as well as making room for their 2022 Bon Iver collaboration ‘Weird Goodbyes’. Bryan Devendorf’s drumming – thunderous, complex, cutting – is more crucial to each song: ‘Deep End (Paul’s In Pieces)’ feels instantly memorable, as does the anchoring on ‘Dreaming’. The crescendo of ‘Space Invader’ is as hard as the “dad-rockers” have gone in a while, his live drumming blowing away ‘First Two Pages…’’s largely electronic contributions.
There are welcome links between the two records: Phoebe Bridgers appears again with backing vocals on ‘Laugh Track’’s title track, while ‘Coat On A Hook’ and ‘Hornets’ are punctuated with oblique Berninger-isms of a relationship in crisis: “What does it mean when your arms fall asleep? / And how do you get rid of hornets before the weekend?” he muses on the latter. We’ll get back to you on that. ‘Crumble’ is elevated by the duet with Roseanne Cash – daughter of Johnny and June – and her country twang, and ‘Alphabet City’ simmers with sonic tension much like the previous records’ material.
The tightness of ‘First Two Pages…’’s singles like ‘Tropic Morning News’ and ‘Eucalyptus’ are somewhat absent, though the looser structures and decision to allow the songs room to grow, melodically and lyrically pays off. In a statement shared with the record, Berninger says the period “feels like the shedding of a skin” and the band walk into the unknown once again for their next creative cycle: a thrilling new chapter will surely emerge.
- Release date: September 18, 2023
- Record label: 4AD