Album Review: The National – First Two Pages of Frankenstein

The National – First Two Pages of Frankenstein

Indie Rock



This album cycle sees The National at an unusual and conflicting crossroad. On the one hand their previous record I Am Easy To Find saw the band lose a lot of creative momentum. Over-long and cluttered, very hit and miss, with an overreliance on guest vocalists and lacklustre arrangements – it was the first real misstep of their career, breaking the winning streak that saw them improve with every subsequent release. But in the time between that record and now, the band have nonetheless found themselves in the spotlight more than ever before. With Aaron Dessner contributing his songwriting and production talents to Taylor Swift’s revelatory folklore and evermore, albums which somehow managed to launch one of the biggest artists on the planet even further into the stratosphere, The National suddenly had an influx of new fans as a result. That left First Two Pages of Frankenstein the unenviable task of trying to capitalise on having the eyes and ears of the world turned in its direction, while also having to go back to the drawing board in the wake of a disappointing release.

As with many other great acts, each of The National’s albums have their own sound and sense of identity. Frankenstein feels like the band stripped down to their bare essentials. Only the most vital components of their sound make the cut, with all the frills and flourishes left by the wayside. Was this the right move to make? Hard to say. At its best this minimalist approach gives the songwriting and melodies room to shine. The opening piano balladry of ‘Once Upon A Poolside’ has such a haunting quality to it. The way the bright simple piano arrangement and ethereal backing vocals seem to echo faintly in the expanse around them, like birdsong reverberating across an empty courtyard. The airy acoustic guitar of ‘Ice Machines’ and the ineffably elegant ‘Your Mind Is Not Your Friend’, while not mustering quite the same magic, also manage to say so much with very little.

But it’s ‘The Alcott‘, the album’s duet with Taylor Swift, that proves to be the album’s most memorable offering, and the biggest draw for new listeners. Taylor dipping into her deeper register pairs exquisitely with Matt Berninger’s signature husky vocals. We had a superb first taste of the two together on evermore‘s ‘coney island‘, but the hooks manage to feel all together more immediate and engaging this time around, as well as it being home to some of the album’s most arresting lyricism. Odd to think that just a few short years ago a collaboration between Swift and The National would have been nigh on unthinkable, and now it’s not only expected but a guaranteed slam-dunk.

However, at its worst Frankenstein feels like the band on autopilot. A tired, bare bones pastiche of their own style that often fails to make any meaningful connection. Forgettable offerings like ‘Eucalyptus’, ‘New Order T-Shirt’ and closing track ‘Send For Me’ range from deeply uncompelling filler material to being just downright boring. On paper ‘Grease In Your Hair’ positions itself as the album’s one upbeat rocker, but in reality it never really gets off the ground. While it’s energetic by this record’s standards it still feels a few notches short of where it should be, and while I’m sure it will take on new life in a live setting the studio mix here feels much too cluttered. Where the album’s real energy is hiding is in the back half of ‘Alien’, where we finally get to hear Bryan Devendorf unleashed on the drumkit alongside some sublime soaring guitar riffs; it’s just a shame the track keeps you waiting so long before it finally plays its hand.Β 

Sometimes it feels like Frankenstein nailed the mission briefing to provide a great entry point for the influx of new listeners. Distilling the band’s sound into its purest and most accessible form. A conscious step back after its overly-ambitious predecessor floundered, focusing on a quiet an understated approach. Other times it feels like a paint by numbers affair, undercooked and uninspired. Perfectly enjoyable, but wholly forgettable. What side of the divide I fall on seems to flip from one listen to the next. Either way, while it’s not the band at their best, it does at least feel like a step towards the right path.