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The delectable melancholia of The National

In ‘First Two Pages Of Frankenstein’, their ninth studio album, The National, an acclaimed indie rock band, return to their melancholia-tinged roots

The National performing at All Points East, London, in 2018.
The National performing at All Points East, London, in 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

The saddest part of a breakup must be when two people who have been in a meaningful relationship have to decide who gets to take what of all the things they had shared. Memories from the past tumble out: incidents, both major and mundane, from years past; intimate moments that had once brought joy; journeys that had been enjoyed together; crazy, funny things that they had said to one another… the unstoppable rush of so many emotions.

A song about divvying up possessions can be sad but I found myself putting Eucalyptus, the second track on The National’s new album, First Two Pages Of Frankenstein, on endless repeat, enjoying it immensely each time.

In Eucalyptus, The National’s Matt Berninger, singer, songwriter and brooding frontman, sings about a couple splitting up their things after a breakup, with the man rejecting his right over most of them, with a tinge of regret about the imminent breakup. “What about the rainbow eucalyptus?” sings Berninger in his deep baritone. “What about the instruments? What about the Cowboy Junkies? What about the Afghan Whigs? What about the Mountain Valley Spring? What about the ornaments? What if I reinvented again? What about the moon drop light?

Then, in the chorus, he sings: “You should take it, ’cause I’m not gonna take it/ You should take it, I’m only gonna break it/ You should take it,/ ’cause I’m not gonna take it/ You should take it, you should take it…” It’s a sad song but so very enjoyable that, as I said, I kept listening to it.

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First Two Pages Of Frankenstein is the ninth studio album from The National, a band comprising five musicians from Cincinnati, Ohio, US: Besides Berninger, there are two sets of brothers in the band—Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Bryan and Scott Devendorf. Formed in 1999, The National became a highly acclaimed indie rock band known for their literate, cerebral lyrics, moody compositions and Berninger’s trademark baritone vocals, tinged with melancholy.

The National’s deeply emotional songs can be overwhelming. Once, years ago, when I introduced a companion to the band by playing Karen, a song from the band’s 2005’s album, Alligator, she suddenly became sad and quiet. Karen’s lyrics appear to be about an alcoholic man and his struggles with himself as he grapples with love. “What a sad, sad song,” my companion whispered. She soon got hooked to the band and is probably still a big fan.

For fans of The National, the band’s emotional depth and range—sadness, of course, but also love, hope and yearning—are the most appealing. It’s easy to relate to Berninger’s sensitive lyrics (his wife Carin Besser, a writer and former fiction editor at The New Yorker, often collaborates with him) and the melancholia can be, surprisingly, a healing soundtrack when you are feeling low.

The new album comes four years after their previous release, I Am Easy To Find (2019), for which the band enlisted the help of several female vocalists, including Sharon Van Etten and Gail Ann Dorsey, and a soundtrack to a short film by the director Mike Mills. If I Am Easy To Find had departed from The National’s tinged-with-melancholia persona, First Two Pages Of Frankenstein goes back to the band’s roots. The brooding lyrics are back, fuelled by several factors—the uncertainties the band experienced about its future; the pandemic-induced isolation; and Berninger’s own struggles with depression and writer’s block.

The songs in the new album reflect all this. In Tropic Morning News, Berninger, 52, appears to talk about his own social awkwardness and inability to match his partner’s wit; in Your Mind Is Not Your Friend (which features Phoebe Bridgers), he is musing about the tricks depression plays on the brain; while The Alcott (which features Taylor Swift) is about two former lovers meeting and trying to connect again in a bar. Though the album features Swift, Bridgers and (in the opening track, Once Upon A Poolside) Sufjan Stevens—all heavy hitters in contemporary popular music—they feature more as background vocalists, with Berninger’s baritone playing the lead.

The music across the album is low- key, a panoply of strings and organs and minimalist percussion, and a sort of throwback to The National’s earlier days, when Berninger’s vocals and words were the central themes for the band.

The band’s musicians are highly talented. In particular, Aaron Dessner, 47, is an accomplished producer and besides founding The National, he has collaborated with several well-known musicians, including Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and Taylor Swift, for whom he has produced two Grammy-nominated albums.

First Two Pages... will easily slide into the list of the band’s best albums along with the highly regarded Boxer (2007), which features some of their most popular songs, such as Fake Empire and Mistaken For Strangers; the powerful High Violet (2010); and the hauntingly melodious Trouble Will Find Me (2013). For The National’s devoted fans, the new album could be a delight; and for those not as familiar with the band, it could be a starting point for an exploration into their catalogue.

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