Just five months after their ninth album, the reflective ‘First Two Pages of Frankenstein’, celebrated American alternative rock band The National have released a companion album, ‘Laugh Track’.
Released digitally on Monday (with a physical release to follow in November), the band’s surprise follow-up embraces the subdued mood of their first 2023 release, while adding some punchier moments along the way. For an album born largely from the same recording sessions, it’s to the band’s credit that ‘Laugh Track’ doesn’t sound like an outtakes / B-sides leftovers collection.
However, while there is renewed dynamism to some of the tracks on ‘Frankenstein’’s sister record, it sadly feels a tad predictable and never quite manages to elicit the rejuvenating feeling once felt on some of their earlier releases — or what remains the band’s last great album, 2013’s ‘Trouble Will Find Me’.
Like the title, there’s yet again a swell of (at times playfully nihilist) melancholia that permeates the lyrical content throughout. You see, the story goes that laugh tracks – or canned laughter – used in American sitcoms (and pioneered by sound engineer Charles Douglas with his ‘Laff Box’ in 1950 – every day’s a learning day) were taped in the 50s, meaning that a lot of the laughs you’ve been hearing on certain shows weren’t from live audiences but from people who were long dead, still laughing from the grave. Like that morbid little factoid, a lot of ‘Laugh Track’’s content deals with frontman Matt Berninger’s well-documented recent depression and the duality of human emotions. Par for the course at this point, as The National have proven themselves unparalleled when it comes to exploring complex warring feelings.
The album starts off strong with moody new single ‘Alphabet City’, which boasts some gorgeous string arrangements and some electronics that recall their underrated 2017 album ‘Sleep Well Beast’. The track ‘Deep End (Paul’s in Pieces)’ follows and impresses due to its more energetic feel, with Bryan Devendorf back on the drumkits after having been largely replaced on the previous album by largely uninspired skittish electro beats. It’s a welcome return.
Then comes ‘Weird Goodbyes’, a familiar track for fans, as it was released in 2022 and strangely left off ‘Two First Pages of Frankenstein’. Featuring Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, the pacey synth-pop ballad works well and segues well into ‘Turn Off The House’. The track has a pleasant, borderline Sufjan Stevens acoustic start, with some creeping electronic waves that also could have sat well on ‘Sleep Well Beast’. “You’re bailing out / You’re free of it now,” laments Berninger at the end of the song. And rather appropriately, as this is where the bailing out occurs: the album’s middle section devolves into something altogether more sluggish, and interest starts to wane – even for die-hard fans.
The synthy ‘Dreaming’, the bittersweet ballad ‘Hornets’ about communication breakdown in a relationship, and ‘Tour Manager’ don’t leave much of a lasting impression, while the album’s undisputed dud has to be the nothing ballad ‘Coat On A Hook’ and its on-the-nose lyrics about social anxiety at a party. The band have done this better in the past, not least with ‘Slow Show’, and this full-blown parody of a gloomy National song makes you regret the days when Berninger used to sing about leaning on walls while they leaned away (‘Slow Show’), or cluing in the listener to the common doting man fetish to “ballerina on the coffee table cock in hand.”
Granted, it is unfair to compare, and the band have evolved since their earlier, snarkier days of ‘Alligator’ and ‘The Boxer’, to embrace slower tempos and the sweeping expanse of all things melancholic. However, they’ve proven with recent albums like ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ and ‘Sleep Well Beast’ that they still had some immediacy and could sink their teeth into themes of worry and disillusion without sounding sanitized.
The title track, featuring Phoebe Bridgers (who appeared on previous songs ‘This Isn’t Helping’ and ‘You Mind Is Not Your Friend’) does liven things up a bit, but even if Berninger and Bridgers’ voices complement each other well and add a haunting dimension to the song, something is missing. It feels like more of the same and only adds to the sneaking suspicion that a lot of these themes linked to the anaesthetic despondency decrying from depression and anxiety have been tackled in less repetitive and sullen ballads that feel like… well, an anaesthetic.
As for the confessional ‘Space Invader’, a sort of emotional inventory populated with “What Ifs?” (“What if I’d never written the letter / I slipped in the sleeve of the record I gave you / What if I’d stayed on the C train until Lafayette / What if we’d never met”), it is redeemed by a bait and switch at the song’s halfway mark where a lengthy and rousing instrumental crescendo gives the track some much needed oomph. Thank you Dessner brothers and your guitar licks.
Thankfully, this verve continues to a terrific double-tap finish. ‘Crumble’ is a brilliant duet with Roseanne Cash (daughter of Johnny and June) that benefits from a country twang; and epic closing song ‘Smoke Detector’.
The latter is an eight-minute post-punk jam where Berninger finally lets go and delivers abstract, free-associative poetry over gnarlier guitars. It features some significantly more inspired lyrical content (“Sit in the backyard in my pharmacy slippers / At least I’m not on the roof any more” ; «Stories of monkeys and digital religions / Like life on a note of the last living pigeon”) and is this album’s standout track, one which feels propelled by its rawness. “Let’s just try to remember the best of us,” murmurs Berninger.
‘Smoke Detector’ is just that – a reminder that after 11 songs of varying worth, this is the intense and hypnotic payoff that proves the band are still more than capable of merging brooding introspection and songs about resignation with a vital fervour previously heard on tracks like 2017’s ‘Turtleneck’ and on their 2005 album ‘Alligator’. It’s a brilliant closer to a slightly soporific and lyrically familiar album.
‘Laugh Track’ may work well in tandem with the more melodically memorable ‘Two First Pages of Frankenstein’, but it does struggle to shake off the National-by-numbers label on its lonesome. Still, at least we got the closing stories of monkeys and digital religions.
And can someone check up on that last living pigeon? We hope he’s alright.
‘Laugh Track’ is currently out digitally and a physical version of the album hits shelves in November.
The National start their European tour on 21 September, with dates in Ireland (21/09), UK (23-27/09), Netherlands (29/09), Germany (30/09, 01/10), Spain (04/10) and Portugal (05-07/10). The rest of their 2023 tour will take place in the US.