“Everything is different/Why do I feel the same?” sings Matt Berninger on “Once Upon a Poolside”, the opening track to the National’s ninth studio album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein. It’s a typically thoughtful lyric from the band’s frontman, a crystalline sketch of depressive thoughts near-whispered over a sparse piano melody.
The National – completed by two pairs of brothers, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and Scott and Bryan Devendorf – have been releasing such emotionally charged music for more than 20 years. Steadily – they only left their day jobs and signed to Beggars Banquet in the run-up to the release of their third album, Alligator (2005) – the Ohio-bred group have attracted critical acclaim (including a Grammy Award for their 2017 record Sleep Well Beast) and a devoted fanbase.
It’s striking that these men, who, in their late forties and fifties, have been making music for more than two decades, are still widely beloved – and not just by a cult following. They are not a vehicle for nostalgia for the rougher days of Noughties indie, but a significant contemporary band.
And while their brand of emotional indie-rock is hardly cutting-edge, the delicacy Berninger as vocalist and Bryce Dessner as orchestrator bring to proceedings marks them out as a rare group of genuinely skilled musicians expressing their most intimate thoughts. Berninger has what might be the most distinctive male voice in indie. He speak-sings, only lightly giving in to melody, and when he does, he is halfway between lullaby-bearer and crooner. In the quietest moments of this record – and it rarely approaches loud – Dessner’s orchestration is poignant. Take “Ice Machines”. Strings, on a song about despondency, should sound clichéd, but with the National’s light touch and willingness to stray into the glitchier realms of underscoring, the song becomes a reserved but touching exploration of feeling out of place in the world around you.
A large part of the band’s appeal comes from their willingness to work with artists who don’t seem like their most obvious collaborators. While other male musicians of their generation might be quick to deride contemporary pop, the National have proven themselves open-minded. That is most notably the case with Taylor Swift, who worked with members of the band on her 2020 record Folklore, which Aaron Dessner co-produced. Both Dessner brothers worked on its follow-up, Evermore, and the National as a whole appeared on its track “Coney Island”. Here, Swift returns the favour, duetting with Berninger on “The Alcott”, a cinematic ballad in which the pair act as long-time lovers trying to recreate a lost connection. “And the last thing you wanted/Is the first thing you do,” they sing together, Swift’s voice coarser than usual, as if trying to meld to Berninger’s gravelly baritone. Their voices don’t make an obvious pairing, which makes the track all the more pleasing.
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The 28-year-old Californian songwriter Phoebe Bridgers is another collaborator here, featuring on two tracks. Her appearance is less surprising than Swift’s, since she comes from within the indie scene. But while Swift is dynamic and fun – who else would act the country girl, down on her luck in love? – Bridgers’s cameo is disappointing. To the rousing “This Isn’t Helping”, she adds breathy vocals: recognisably hers, yet so insignificant to the track that they really could have been anyone’s. She plays a similar role on the statelier, more sombre “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend”. It’s good to see artists of two different generations come together to sing about depression, the core theme of both of these tracks and much of this record. But to use Bridgers in the same way on both songs feels like a waste – of her multifarious talent, and of the band’s broad tastes. (That Aaron Dessner has produced and co-written Ed Sheeran’s new album, due to be released on 5 May, really is evidence that their musical interests are wide-ranging.)
“Once Upon a Poolside”, the opening track, has the same problem. The song credits inform us that it features the acclaimed singer and multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens, who is both remarkably prolific and enigmatic. Bryce Dessner has worked with Stevens before, on the collaborative 2017 album Planetarium, and to have him appear again here is a coup. But his input – which amounts to two repeated lines, sung alongside Berninger – is barely audible, his famously sensitive voice even more papery thin than Bridgers’s.
These collaborative misses feel like a shame. As does the National’s reticence to create a mood beyond lightly buoyant, which they achieve on “Tropic Morning News”, the album’s lushest, most guitar-heavy track, and the almost bouncy “Grease In Your Hair”. But too often these 11 songs sound overly similar. Nine albums in, the National sit firmly in their comfort zone.
“First Two Pages of Frankenstein” is out now on 4AD.
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