The National review, The First Two Pages of Frankenstein: Guaranteed to soothe
“Hi, it’s Matt, I’m the problem, it’s me…” OK, so, The National’s frontman doesn’t actually deliver this line in his duet with Taylor Swift on The First Two Pages of Frankenstein, the esteemed indie band’s ninth album. But that’s the gist of “The Alcott”, on which the gravel-voiced Matt Berninger assures his most famous fan: “I’ll ruin it for you/ I’ll ruin it all over/ And over, like I always do…” As ever, there’s warm consolation in the quintet’s intelligent Eeyorishness. It’s guaranteed to soothe listeners through the yawning anhedonia that forms the backdrop to this solid (if rather hook-lite) release.
In recent interviews, Berninger has spoken about how, in 2021, he sank into the deepest depression he’d experienced as an adult. He tried therapy, antidepressants and getting sober, only to find none of it helped. “But writing a song about how nothing made a difference was the thing that made a difference,” he told Uncut this month, “That was my medicine. Lexapro doesn’t work on me, but Aaron and Bryce’s [Dessner, the band’s guitarists] sketches do.”
The Dessners, in turn, say that when Berninger eventually brought them the new song, “Tropic Morning News” they felt they had a “Dylanesque” narrative that reanimated the band as Frankenstein did his monster. It’s a story in which the singer thanks his wife and co-writer Carin Besser for finding “the ache in my argument… the slush in my sediment/ You made it sound so intelligent.” Driven by Bryan Devendorf’s electric drumming, it’s a propulsive track through which the Dessners’ guitars swim like sharks: grey and purposeful, rising from the shadows in sleek slices, swallowing solos in lazy gulps before submerging again. They cruise with more toothy serration through the excellent “Eucalyptus”, on which Berninger purges himself of breakup anxiety by imagining the worst scenes, including dividing the record collection. “What about the Cowboy Junkies? What about The Afghan Whigs? You should take it/ Cuz I’m not going take it…”
The electric guitars are traded for the bright ping of a folky acoustic on the uplifting “Ice Machine” and the lovely “New Order T-Shirt” on which Berninger shuffles images like old photographs, recalling somebody “in the Kentucky Aquarium… standing at the base of your magazine skyscraper… in the bath on the phone telling somebody that maybe they’re better off leaving”. The addictive masochism of remembering lost people is evoked by a neat line where the singer compares these mental snapshots to “drugs in my pocket”. The depressive’s envy of those able to take their happiness for granted is bluntly exorcised against the funereal drums and throbbing synth of “This Isn’t Helping” (featuring Phoebe Bridgers). “It isn’t fair how you never look like you’re trying/ And I’m here kicking myself to keep from crying,” they lament.
Bridgers pops back up on the pretty, piano-backed “Your Mind is Not Your Friend”, while fellow miserablist Sufjan Stevens adds a whispery, prayerful falsetto on piano-backed opener “Once Upon A Poolside”. Swift gets the most prominent guest vocal, and though “The Alcott” doesn’t have a strong melody, the muscular intelligence of her phrasing offers a crisp snap of challenge to Berninger’s poetic sad-dadding. “Have I become one of your problems?” she asks. “Could it be easy this once?”
The album ends with the extended hand of “Send For Me”. Against the slow-crunching beat and soft marimba, Berninger’s stonewashed voice offers a promise of support “wherever, whenever”. The song’s gentle magic lies in the scatter of poignant theoretical situations in which he feels he might be needed. “If you’re ever at a glass top table/ Selling your ideas/ To swivel-chairing underlings/ Who just don’t see it?… I’ll come and get you.” It’s realistic, reassuring, and rather soporific.