In September, The National thrilled their fans by releasing a brand new album, Laugh Track. Their tenth studio album comes soon after the band released First Two Pages of Frankenstein, in April. Two National albums in one year is a windfall for the ever-increasing breed of fans of the American rock band, which originated in Cincinnati, Ohio, but was transplanted to Brooklyn, New York, early in their career.
To anyone who has heard The National, it will not come as much of a surprise that lead singer Matt Berninger, has suffered from bouts of deep depression. For the most part, The National’s songs, ever since they started in 1999, have been sad and made more melancholic by Berninger’s brooding baritone vocals.
The National are now 24-year-old veterans of the rock music scene but it seems like just the other day that their third album, Alligator, got them critical acclaim, paving the way for big mainstream success. That was in 2005. Since then, The National’s popularity has spread. Berninger’s literate lyrics, set to music that is primarily crafted by bandmate Aaron Dessner, a multi-faceted musician, songwriter, and producer, are easily relatable to listeners and there is something about how their sad songs are able to create a sense of joy.
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Melancholic songs can often be more appealing than upbeat ones and The National’s are an example of that. The 12 songs on Laugh Track don’t stray from the course. In reality, the album is a companion to the band’s previous one, First Two Pages of Frankenstein, and the songs on both were written around the same time. There were so many songs that it was felt that they could probably be covered in two albums instead of one. And that’s what happened.
When Alligator or its successor, Boxer (2007) came out, the band’s members were not very young--they were either in their early 30s or late 20s. Unlike their peers in indie rock bands such as The Strokes or The Walkmen, members of The National were older when success came to the band. Today, they are squarely middle-aged.
That’s probably why The National’s music, despite their large swathe of fans amongst young women, is often referred to as “Sad Dad” music, adoringly but also with a hint of a jibe.
That seems to work well for the band. The National’s formula of brooding songs dealing with very personal feelings about love, loss, breakups, general angst, and often depression, has not changed much since their early days. When, like many others, I heard them first on Boxer, the lyrics of the album’s opener, Fake Empire (“Stay out super late tonight/ Picking apples, making pies/ Put a little something in our lemonade/ And take it with us/ We're half awake in a fake empire/ We're half awake in a fake empire…”) were enough to hook me instantly. Thence began the journey of following them and devouring most of their discography.
The National, however, have tried to experiment. Their eighth album, I Am Easy to Find (2019), strays a bit. Accompanied by a short film by Mike Mills, an American film and music video director, it is a concept album that features collaborations with several women singers and attempts to explore the journey of a woman’s life: identity, loss, memory, aging, gender, and love.
It was also an album that could well have been The National’s last one. Shortly after its release, Berninger fell into deep depression, suffering a formidable writer’s block; Aaron Dessner, a prolific collaborator, got immersed in many projects (including, famously, with pop diva Taylor Swift) and it looked as if it was all going to end for the band.
It didn’t though, and as Berninger has described in various interviews, he began writing again to music proffered by Dessner, and the outcome was dozens of new songs. Some of these formed First Two Pages of Frankenstein, which also featured guest singers including Swift, and singer-songwriters, Phoebe Bridgers and Sufjan Stevens. It also marked a return to the style of their early oeuvre.
Laugh Track, many of whose songs were germinated during the same time as those on the previous album, is a more wholehearted return to The National’s “Sad Dad” metier. As always, Berninger’s lyrics, sung in nearly a speak-singing manner, are literate and not abstract (more Leonard Cohenesque than, say, Michael Stipesque!) and the mood is flecked with sadness. Though it is billed as a sister album to their previous one, the band sounds more energetic and dynamic on it. There are more live drum lines instead of sampled or automated ones and a general feeling of looseness when compared to the extra-refined music on First Two Pages. Guest singers include Bridgers, the country music singer Roseanne Cash, and the indie folk singer, Bon Iver. Two standout songs from the album: Space Invader, on which the band shows its ability to create fervent tension and release and deals with the prospect of losing one’s identity in a relationship; and Crumble, which features Cash and is about the cataclysmic breakup of a marriage.
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Angsty and sad are what The National’s songs are about and their burgeoning brood of fans loves them for that because there is a kind of joy that only sad songs can bring.
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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music. Sanjoy Narayan posts @sanjoynarayan.