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The National complete a triumphant ascension with First Two Pages of Frankenstein

"First Two Pages Of Frankenstein"

Release date: 28 April 2023
The National - First Two Pages Of Frankenstein cover
27 April 2023, 00:00 Written by Steven Loftin

A band who undoubtedly made their most consistent and brilliant mark in the first decade of the millennium, for The National, this later-stage of their career has seen the game change.

Where before they were relatively unknown, their cultural currency was saved for independent coffee shop and red wine types, now The National are a big business. Obviously with that comes a natural dulling of their underground mystique.

With increasingly larger stages for their rapturous live shows, cartoon spots (they’re regular contributors to Bob’s Burgers comedic musical offerings), and Aaron Dessner’s hands in the pop culture pie with production spots including Taylor Swift on Folklore and Evermore, they’re the biggest band whose only entry requirement is a frame of mind; vocalist Matt Berninger’s words pairing with the sparse musical offerings needing a certain degree of vulnerability to dig through.

Which leads us to First Two Pages of Frankenstein. There’s a bittersweet notion that sits heavy on their ninth outing. It’s an effort that is likely to not be built upon, and this could very well be the apex of The National in the current day. If that turns out to be the case then there are certainly worse ways to do so. Latter day releases have either been wonderfully shimmered and shaken (2017’s Sleep Well Beast), or fell foul to a meta versioning of the band (2019’s I Am Easy To Find), but Frankenstein at least puts the pieces back together to evoke some form of late-stage triumph.

The euphoric melancholy of the group feels more prescient than ever. Be it in the subdued (“This Isn’t Helping”) or the overt (“New Order T-Shirt”), or even “Tropic Morning News” and “Grease In Your Hair”’s sense of urgency thanks to Bryan Devendorf’s focused – if inhibited – drums. Throughout it all there’s a sense that the lion remains tamed, the impact never quite picks up the sting it once did, but what they deliver, they do so with natural aplomb.

It also finds the most collaborations to date – including one, Ms. Swift on “The Alcott”, completing the Aaron Dessner cinematic universe. From the Sufjan Steven’s opening gambit (“Once Upon a Poolside”), to Phoebe Bridger’s two appearances (“This Isn’t Helping”, “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend”) all contribution's are muted. In true The National fashion, they’re relegated to backing harmonies and occasional top line moments that never draw away from the main attraction that is their unique branch of summertime sadness. It’s a light seasoning rather than a cultural stock cube to bolster the bands viewpoint to the masses (though the names plastered on the track listing certainly aren’t going to hurt).

Wonderfully obtuse, heart wrenching lyrics remain an enigma once more (“If you’re ever in a psychiatric greenhouse with slip-on shoes”?) but that’s the way it should be. Piecing together ideas to fit your own bill, within the melancholic diatribe of Berninger’s late-night scrawling is a part of the game, they’re a band that once you’re in, you’re fully pilled. First Two Pages of Frankenstein is yet another dose to remind you why – and how – the band have managed to carve their own special place out in the cultural landscape.

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