Laugh Track (4AD/Remote Control)
THIS IS GOING TO BE different for every listener, and there is no right answer – though obviously, if you agree with me, you’re right – but to me The National is defined by Bryan Devondorf.
Yes, Matt Berninger’s baritone-in-a-weary-suit voice which has come to encapsulate a certain kind of life-questioning adulthood is absolutely key, as are the lyrics he, and then increasingly over the years he and his partner, Carin Besser, have written to flesh out exactly that questioning. And if the band’s official recent history is to be believed, it was Berninger writer’s block/recurrence of depression turning into a genuine existential crisis which kept them from the studio for several years until First Two Pages Of Frankenstein was released in May.
Of course, the bass of the less hirsute Devendorf, Scott, is a fluid companion to the playing and exploratory, emotionally rich writing of the often-brilliant Dessners, Aaron and Bryce. They are the foundations.
But it is Bryan Devendorf’s ability to swing without losing power (yet never overwhelming with force), to create these inviting and eventually insistent rhythms that aren’t about dance but do always make for movement, that separated The National from the pack of rock bands and balladeers. It was the grounding and yet elevating aspect of this on stage that enabled the reaching, yearning-for-connection physicality of Berninger’s performances.
And it was the reduced emphasis on this side of the band which emphasised the sonic and rhythmic change in direction in albums such as 2019’s I Am Easy To Find and its predecessor, Sleep Well Beast, where electronic sounds and electronic rhythms emerged more prominently, as well as the reality of a band, begun in Ohio and grown in New York, whose members were now scattered across the country.
Two Pages Of Frankenstein, and especially, Laugh Track, have returned those drums, those rhythms, to the fore, and to the core, while not abandoning directions recently taken. This is a pair of physically intrusive, but (again, typically, crucially) never physically imposing recordings that feel like how they were made: bodies in the one room at the same time. It feels like a rock band playing rock music, but not just that. Not because that isn’t enough, but because that isn’t all they are.
That these two albums – recorded at much the same time and, after nothing for four years, released within four months of each other – feel like a rejuvenation of the band that could have walked away if not happy then quite satisfied with their work in 2020, cannot be a coincidence.
That the album finishes with nearly 8 minutes of the whole band circling an expanding wormhole in Smoke Detector – lyrics teetering on the edge of sense and collapsing logic; guitars probing and squalling; cymbals smashed then re-housed – and never abandoning the possibility of diving headfirst into that hole, is a thrilling confirmation of this.
Note how Turn Off The House begins in a holding expectation of acoustic guitar, piano and machine twitch as Berninger describes an ending/departure: “Put everything in boxes/Your head in a paper bag/Leave all the windows open/Leave the beds unmade.” Then the snare arrives in that familiar snap/slide pattern – “You can find out what it means/When your mind leaves your body” – and the nature of this internal/external exchange begins to shift. Not to resolution, but to a broadening: the bass turns towards itself, the piano and strings bend away, and the electric guitar looks upwards, and all the while the tempo has been lifting. “You are free of it now.”
The solid measuring Devendorf brings to Space Invader has ripples that seem to be springboards for the synths and then piano and strings that thicken and then flow away half way through to allow an almost Fripp-like guitar to redirect the song, while Deep End (Paul’s In Pieces) arrives with all the urgency of a rush outdoors as the drums drag everyone in their unbridled wake.
By contrast, the airiness at the beginning of Alphabet City, its electronics offering distant explorations alongside Berninger’s croakiness of hope (“I will listen for you at the door/Take forever off, anytime you want/I’ll save your place”) begins to take shape almost romantically, but the potential for floweriness is kept in check by the occasional intervention of military drum rolls. But in Coat On A Hook, the delicateness, the ephemeral beauty of dancing-on-air guitars and Berninger in full croon effortlessly frame and then emphasise the heavier-than-air weight of the lyrics, the velvet glove to their iron fist. Proper The National.
A final thought for those who wonder why they’re back at the table for seconds when a bigger plate might have been better from the start. It’s possible that Laugh Track and Two Pages Of Frankenstein could have been amalgamated into a substantial double album – with, probably, a few tracks excised from the full roster of 23 songs to keep things “manageable”.
But there’s enough nuance in the differences, enough consistent quality in the material, and enough momentum built up across the separate records to make that not just unnecessary but unwise. Enjoy the bigger story being told.
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