Album of the Week | The National: Laugh Track

Music Reviews The National
Album of the Week | The National: Laugh Track

There’s something to be said about a band that never gets worse. You can point to any post-Beatles band and find a dip in quality someplace, but it’s hard to perform such a task when piecing through The National’s catalog—which has grown one album larger this week, upon the surprise release of Laugh Track. If you believe that Boxer or High Violet or even Trouble Will Find Me are the various apexes of The National’s career then, yes, Laugh Track is probably a dip in quality for you. But, in this case, I’m thinking about Dirty Work-level bad or, even, Cut the Crap or St. Anger levels of atrociousness. With The National, there are no flaws, rips, tears or stains. Even their most “boring” release, I Am Easy to Find, is still quite enjoyable. Laugh Track is, without a doubt, better than its predecessor—and let’s face it, First Two Pages of Frankenstein was pretty damn good, too.

Laugh Track is a companion piece to the band’s other 2023 album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein, sure, but it stands on its own. We knew this was coming, as Matt Berninger, Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Bryan and Scott Devendorf were probed earlier this year about why their single “Weird Goodbyes” wasn’t on their then-new album. They hinted it would come later on, which can only mean one of two things in this industry: a deluxe-edition or a completely separate project altogether. In The National’s case this time around, it was fully the latter, pseudo-cemented by the release of singles “Alphabet City” and “Space Invader” out of nowhere just a few weeks ago.

The band officially teased Laugh Track at their Homecoming Festival in Cincinnati this past weekend, but music critics had already known about it for at least a week. For a band to go from a lull of nearly four full years without putting out a record to making and releasing two within six months of each other, it feels like some kind of renaissance meal of riches—and us National fans are absolutely eating right now. Long revered as one of the most consistent bands of their generation, Berninger, the Dessners and the Devendorfs have built an empire at a snail’s pace—spending over 20 years cultivating a dedicated audience of millions, and they are only just now reaping the splendors of bonafide rock stardom.

Perhaps you were hip enough to The National before they started their own cinematic universe—this microcosm of well-intentioned and similar-sounding pop stars and indie artists, like Bon Iver, Taylor Swift, Sufjan Stevens and Phoebe Bridgers. Perhaps you miss the collaborative simplicity of records like Trouble Will Find Me and Sleep Well Beast, when singers like Justin Vernon, Sharon Van Etten, Annie Clark and Lisa Hannigan were not featured players so much as they arrived and lent pieces of themselves that became crucial to the architecture of the songs they were brought onto.

But things have changed. The Divorce-Rock Gods are now beloved by fans many years younger than their core audience—and that’s a good thing, even if it has skewed critical perceptions of where the band is supposed to go next, or who they are or aren’t supposed to have sing on their records. When I got into The National in high school, their style of music-making was still niche—at least in terms of widespread, mainstream appeal. A glowing Pitchfork review or Paste interview didn’t hold much stock in the context of a Billboard chart or Tumblr feed or shop talk in office buildings and lunchrooms; you could argue those things still don’t carry water like a fad does.

And I’m not saying The National are now a fad; they are quintessentially the opposite. But I don’t think a Swiftie is buying into the devastation of “Baby We’ll be Fine” as much as some might believe, nor do I think that having Bridgers sing on a track like “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend” is any more important to the average boygenius fan than it likely is to a longtime Sad Dad devotee. The National’s greatness and ingenuity will surely outlast the interests of those demographics of people. What I mean here is that, after years of surviving and clawing through indie darling status and domestic recognition, The National have cracked a code of success on a much more global scale—whether that means they became pals with the right people at the right time or the rest of the world is now, finally, buying into what they’ve been selling for two decades. I can’t say which one it is for sure, but what I do know is that Bridgers, Stevens and Swift—whether you like it or not—changed the alchemy of Frankenstein and the band for the better.

I’ve seen some folks on Twitter offer up their condolences to The National of old this week, lamenting that the version of the band that made a daring record that was rigid and raucous like Alligator, or a masterpiece as meticulous and gentle as Boxer, is no more. But on Laugh Track, The National remain as bold as they’ve ever been—plugging the sounds of a 20-year catalog into a 12-chapter show and calling upon some friends to fill out the party. The idea that these songs are remnants of First Two Pages of Frankenstein is a derivative presentation of the work itself, as Berninger and his crew wrote all of this stuff at the same time as all of that other stuff. Perhaps they could have just lumped it all together into one double-album like I Am Easy to Find; perhaps they just weren’t interested in taking another risk and being accused of losing their edge with a bloated project. I think it’s become rather difficult to put out two records in one year—and I have to wonder if the stigma around leftovers and B-sides is what’s pushing most artists who aren’t Taylor Swift or Big Thief to stray from the temptation of double-dipping. Thankfully, The National are immune to such a cultural deficiency; Laugh Track registers like a selection of tunes that, just maybe, should have been released first—that’s how good they are.

The album opens familiarly with “Alphabet City,” a nervous, subdued slice of language touted like a despondent, distanced cry for help. Berninger paints a picture of the romantic lonesomeness that surrounds him, feeding into the band’s divorce-core premonitions. “I’ll still be here when you come back from space, I will listen for you at the door,” Berninger sings. “Take forever off, any time you want, I’ll save your place. If anybody asks, I’ll say you’re coming back. We’ll just have to wait.” Kicking off the album with something like “Alphabet City” might, initially, suggest that the low-key, synthesizer-syncopated arrangements that greatly populated First Two Pages of Frankenstein were going to return. Luckily, Bryan’s man-made drumming returns in full-force on “Deep End (Paul’s in Pieces)” soon after the opener rings out with a devastating thesis statement: “When you’re with me, I don’t miss the world.”

Bryan’s percussion emphasizes the throughlines of anxiety and forlorn across Laugh Track, especially on songs like “Turn Off the House” and “Space Invader.” His drum work on “Deep End (Paul’s in Pieces),” in particular, sounds like the technique he was embellishing on “Don’t Swallow the Cap” 10 years ago—which is a delight to become privy to as, in those moments, it’s as if the hushed arrangements of I Am Easy to Find couldn’t have been more of a one-off anomaly in the band’s catalog. “Turn Off the House” merges a hybrid of High Violet and Sleep Well Beast acoustic and string instrumentation with the lyrical deftness of a contemporary, internal cruelty. “Full body gentle shutdown, so many people to let down,” Berninger hums. “Don’t even think about me.” It’s a standout among standouts, a track that arrives like an admixture of “Green Gloves” and “Quiet Light”—a formula that I will, admittedly, always feel beholden to.

“Weird Goodbyes,” which features harmonies from Vernon, is one of those songs that was good on its own as a single but becomes great in the context of a filled-out tracklist. With a pulsing backbeat reminiscent of the Sleep Well Beast—especially something like “Guilty Party” or “I’ll Still Destroy You”—the song becomes even more sobering, nearly to the point that “Memorize the bathwater, memorize the air, there’ll come a time I’ll wanna know I was here” heightens the song’s own brutality. Berninger’s lyricism on this track is especially gutting—notably a sequence like “The grief it gets me, the weird goodbyes; my car is creeping, I think it’s dying. I’m pulling over until it heals, I’m on a shoulder of lemon fields.”

“Laugh Track” boasts a feature from Bridgers that runs circles around her two appearances on First Two Pages of Frankenstein earlier this year. She duets with Berninger beautifully, as glitchy and muted horns solo behind them and the rest of the band. “Everything melted in less than a week, watching it felt like forever,” they harmonize. “The lights started dimming and then they went out, Heaven came down like a blanket.” It’s comforting that “Laugh Track” is the most hopeful song on that record, and I imagine it’s the ceiling Bridgers and Berninger wanted to hit on his solo cut “Walking on a String” four years ago. This time around, the excitement around the song does not hinge itself on the inclusion of Bridgers; instead, the focus is on how she fastens into the DNA of the track so seamlessly. It’s refreshing to see a contribution become less dependent on fan-service and, instead, bend towards the needs of an arrangement. There’s magic in that.

A particularly important part of Laugh Track is “Space Invader,” the other single we first heard a few weeks ago. The song’s got a similar root of vulnerability that much of First Two Pages of Frankenstein also shouldered—especially when Berninger sings “What if I’d never written the letter I slipped in the sleeve of the record I gave you? What if I’d stayed on the C-train until Lafayette? What if we’d never met?” With a construction that careens into a build-up of chaotic, beautiful noise, “Space Invader” is epic and perfect and damning. Berninger is at his best when he’s blurring the lines between abstraction and the most gutting poetry you’ve ever heard. The “Quarter after four in the morning, my heart’s software gore. Why’d I leave it like that?” outro is a particularly apt representation of that truth. “Space Invader” is, at seven minutes, not just the Laugh Track centerpiece but a patient and pseudo-orchestral endeavor that kicks the Dessner brothers’ arrangements up into ballad territory without ever fully softening into such a definitive point.

Everything from “Laugh Track” and onwards is what cements this album as one of The National’s best—and maybe their single greatest feat since Sleep Well Beast. A song like “Hornets” is dainty and trenchant, and it features one of Berninger’s greatest and most vivid verses in a long time. “I don’t need to be rescued, I just need to be pinned. God’s in the decals and the words on your skin,” he sings. “Not being in love with you, it isn’t easy to fake when I don’t know if you’re ever gonna come back from your cigarette break.” Likewise, “Coat on a Hook” and “Tour Manager” take a two-part approach to the acoustic stylings that would have been sandwiched in-between barn-burners 15 years ago. The former is melodramatic and spacial, while the latter is cathartic and subtly propulsive. What’s unfortunate is how quickly their beauty gets washed away by the final two tracks—which is not a knock against “Coat on a Hook” or “Tour Manager”; it’s a testament to just how mountainous of a career benchmark the closing chapters of Laugh Track are.

Penultimate song “Crumble” features the greatest collaboration The National have ever brought to life: a duet between Berninger and Rosanne Cash. To hear Cash bring her timeworn croons into the Sad Dads universe is actually unbelievably perfect. She doesn’t immediately take center-stage like Bridgers did five tracks earlier, instead opting to blanket Berninger’s lead with a stunning, pronounced glow. “If you say it like that, I’ll die,” they harmonize. “If you say it like that, I’ll probably cry.” But then, in a hero’s turn that fully solidifies “Crumble” as a National all-timer, Cash pulls back the curtain and grabs hold of the limelight, singing her own verse atop the Dessners’ arrangements—a triumph that makes Laugh Track such a rewarding, immense hour of music.

Closing number “Smoke Detector” was written during a soundcheck this summer—and it was recorded last-minute and added as the finale to Laugh Track. It’s a bright, fierce and organic coda that sticks out from the continuity of the tracklist—but not in a way that transforms it into some kind of sonic aberration. It’s a return to rock stylings that brightened the corners of Cherry Tree and Alligator, the era where Berninger would operate with a type of chaos that was channeled into some of the most spasmodic shredding post-Y2K. And, amid the impromptu acid poetics of the lyrics, one line cuts through the bizarre, Gonzo prophecies and slurred premonitions: “I’ll get better,” Berninger croons. He’s singing it like he means it this time.

The idea that The National need to make another Alligator or Boxer to remain culturally—and sonically—relevant isn’t something I am sold on. Personally, I don’t need the guys to rip into a riot or cut up the rug in order for me to feel something as a listener. I work from home and I socialize from home. The world is much, much smaller now than it was in 2007—and the people who bought stock in The National have grown up. I’m tired and, maybe, you’re tired, too. Sometimes, the closeness that we share with the folks in a nearby orbit is just gravitational enough to make sense of everything beyond it. Laugh Track is a close-knit record, if only because the people hurt within it are never too far out of reach from everyone else. It’s hard to channel that kind of withdrawal into a work of spitting, caustic, uproarious melody—though a song like “Smoke Detector” is a good reminder of where the band came from, and it might be a signal as to where they’re heading next. But there’s so much despair and lonesomeness and erosion articulated through various depictions of interpersonal and self-destruction on Laugh Track that an old line like “I’m put together, but beautifully” has never felt more apocryphal.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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