The National, “First Two Pages of Frankenstein”

The steadfast indie rock group’s production toolbox is fully refined on their ninth effort, providing more surprises in the melodic trap doors between tender and somber.

The National, First Two Pages of Frankenstein

The steadfast indie rock group’s production toolbox is fully refined on their ninth effort, providing more surprises in the melodic trap doors between tender and somber.

Words: Kyle Lemmon

April 26, 2023

The National
First Two Pages of Frankenstein

The National are one of indie rock’s most steadfast bands, so reports of conflict within the group with each subsequent album seems a bit like rock mythology run amok. But this is an outfit that has a sense of identity in spite of adversity, and their ninth effort First Two Pages of Frankenstein continues the band’s consistent streak.

They’re a veteran group that strains for moments of quiet revelation, with the best results often involving contributions from their peers. Sufjan Stevens returns on the piano-led opener “Once Upon a Poolside,” and newcomers Phoebe Bridgers and Taylor Swift fill out another guest-filled release. Swift sings on the beautiful piano-led duet “The Alcott” with frontman Matt Berninger after her work with Aaron Dessner on 2020’s Folklore and Evermore. “I tell you my problems / You tell me the truth,” she sings with Berninger, and it’s a fitting encapsulation of both songwriting careers. All three female-led tracks are reminiscent of the strong voices the group collaborated with on 2019’s I Am Easy to Find, but blended with the dread-rock heard on 2003’s Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers—minus the screaming, of course.

Those early dalliances in punk rage and Americana died down post-Boxer, with that 2007 LP seeing a new focus on refining their production toolbox. Frankenstein reflects this 16-year development, with the band offering up more surprises in the melodic trap doors between tender and somber. Twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner are still commanding on multiple instruments (primarily piano and guitar), as evidenced on “Grease in Your Hair” or “Ice Machines.” Bryce provides orchestration on key tracks like “Tropic Morning News” and the Bridgers-featuring “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend.” Brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf rule the rhythm section across every track, sometimes more subdued from the quicker paces found on Boxer, High Violet, Trouble Will Find Me, and the GRAMMY-winning Sleep Well Beast

The Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati collective still make layered rock music for urbanites with a salon sensibility, which is an aesthetic that’s often reduced on social media into the joke of a non-genre, “sad dad rock.” Although The National embraced the joke with “Sad Dads” merch, their band structure is kind of like a family of musicians writing down and wrestling with their problems. The brutal vignettes this time include a relationship with the backdrop of 9/11 (“New Order T-Shirt”), a couple parting ways and separating the minutiae in their apartment (“Eucalyptus”), and the isolation of modern relationships (“Alien”).

The most brutal example is “New Order T-Shirt.” It’s a flickering timeloop of melancholia that’s ignited by sharp nostalgia. Berninger starts the acoustic track by recounting his wife tapping on a “box of blue American Spirits” at the Anyway Café before 9/11. His memories of their relationship spill out like cigarette ash: “I keep what I can of you / Split-second glimpses and snapshots and sounds / You in my New Order t-shirt / Holding a cat and a glass of beer.” It’s the type of lyricism that David Berman once employed, where the sad and silly tangle in the sheets.

All 11 tracks on First Two Pages of Frankenstein have a bit of that heartbroken magic, including the quietly hopeful “Send for Me” coda. Even with all his musical family inputs, Berninger was constantly re-reading the first two pages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in between bouts of depression and writer’s block. In the classic story, explorer Robert Walton is looking for a new passage from Russia to the Pacific Ocean via the Arctic Ocean. Victor Frankenstein is eventually found on an ice flow. Berninger’s dour and distressed songs that sprang from those multiple readings of Shelley’s book fit that passage well. First Two Pages evokes the feeling of an emotionally emaciated man floating through an alien, sublime, and isolated place in his life. It’s a harsh landscape, but The National’s been here before.