Author: Gabriel Wolthuis
New York indie-rock band The National released their 10th studio album Laugh Track this past week with hardly any advance notice. Adding to the surprise, this is the second album they’ve released this year, with their 9th album First Two Pages of Frankenstein coming only a few months prior. Factor in the added complication that they are still touring in support of Frankenstien and you have all the conditions to make Laugh Track one of the most intriguing releases of the year. However, this highly unorthodox album rollout begs the question “is it good, or a half-finished gimmick?”
To understand the context of the album, one has to understand the context of the album that preceded it. According to Variety, the band met to work on new material three years after their last release, only to realize that Matt Berninger, the lead singer and primary songwriter for the band, was going through an intense period of writer’s block. Unsure of what to do, the band almost made the decision to stop making music altogether. Thanks to the support of his spouse and bandmates, though, along with an unexpected second wind of inspiration coming from reading Mary Shelley’s gothic classic, Berninger began to find it therapeutic to directly write about his struggles with depression. Once he found a creative muse, The National sprung to life, thoroughly ready for a change of pace and eager to take on new challenges in their music.
The finished product sounds like a band in transition. While there are occasional glimpses of the band in past iterations (such as the stellar “Tropic Morning News”), First Two Pages of Frankenstein goes places that no album by The National has gone before, musically and lyrically. This experimentation is a mixed blessing, as the effectiveness of the band’s exploration of new territories is debatable and much of the time the songs sound like they have greater potential than what is actually produced. It seemed to raise some questions about where the band would go from here, and whether they were past their prime after so many years of releasing one fantastic album after another.
Fortunately, the world didn’t have to wait long to find out. It turns out the best indicator of where the band wanted to go next was the strangest and most memorable song off of Frankenstein, titled “Eucalyptus”. The band claims in a statement to DORK magazine that they finished the song during a soundcheck and were so excited by the final result that they performed it the same night, resulting in the track sounding rough, unpolished and passionate. In an interview with The Independent, they said they felt compelled to start jamming during soundtracks on the Frankenstein tour soundchecks to find new songs rather than meticulously assembling them piece by piece. This new approach was so successful that by the end of the second leg of their tour they had enough songs to create a whole new companion album, which they titled Laugh Track.
Comparing this project to their previous works, it’s obvious that The National were in a mood to try new things. Lead single “Alphabet City” inhabits a dark and brooding atmosphere with lyrics hinting at an awkward relationship. Almost as soon as the eerie synth loop that carries the track along ends, propulsive drums and power chords usher in album highlight “Deep End”, a delightful indie-rock jam that sounds like a band genuinely having fun making music. It’s one of the catchiest songs The National have ever released, and is also the first time in a long time that this indie-rock band…rocked.
The change of pace and tone between the first two tracks is a good representation of the album overall. The tracklist isn’t particularly cohesive, and the writing doesn’t have the pristine polish that we’ve come to expect from their most recent work, but there are some real gems here. “Space Invader” is one such example, painting a portrait of a man haunted by endless ‘what ifs’ amidst the backdrop of a slow-building orchestral pop song. Three minutes in, the music seems to end prematurely, only for the song to regain momentum and build to a thrilling crescendo of instrumentation that completely drowns out Berniner’s intrusive thoughts with a wave of noise. Meanwhile, Bon Iver, Phoebe Bridgers, and Rosanne Cash are all effectively employed guest features. Bridgers in particular stands out, helping Berninger give the title track a haunting feel of quiet desperation hidden behind a flimsy facade of good humor.
Elsewhere, the songs embody a more overt tone of darkness. “Dreaming” plays out like a one-sided conversation about misleading expectations amidst a subdued beat and eerie electronic flourishes, and “Turn Off the House” is a vignette of a protagonist embracing self-imposed isolation. Darker still is the album closer, “Smoke Detector”. Berninger typically functions best as a lyricist when he’s writing lyrics based around a certain vibe, and on this track, the vibes reign supreme. The bars read as a depressing stream-of-conscious poem that the rest of the band is jamming to, playing music that meanders around and creates a sinister undercurrent, complementing the lyrics wonderfully. It’s an unsettling and captivating listening experience, completely unlike anything Berninger and co. has released before.
Not every song on Laugh Track stands out on its own, with some sections of the album blending together in their tone and composition. Additionally, this album has little cohesion sonically, something The National normally takes very seriously on their albums. However, this is the most varied body of work they’ve released in a long time too, and as a result there is a lot to get excited about. Even after so many years of top-notch musicianship, they still have plenty of tricks up their sleeves, and they seem thrilled to be working with a reinvented playbook. Keep your eye on The National, because they seem determined to subvert our expectations of what they are capable of, and if the highlights on Laugh Track are anything to go by, the future looks bright for this band.
Photo credit: Pitchfork