Four years after their previous album, I Am Easy To Find, The National have made an awaited return with First Two Pages Of Frankenstein. The album, released 28 April, found its name when frontman and lyricist Matt Berninger, struggling with mental health issues, picked up a copy of the book and noticed that the frozen landscape within explorer Walton’s letter at the beginning of the book matched his headspace. In addition to being their first longform work in some time, The National have teamed up with several musical superstars for this album, with Sufjan Stevens, Phoebe Bridgers and Taylor Swift all contributing to the writing and vocals.
A slightly more critical sticking point is that, for an album studded with musical stars, they at times seem underutilised, particularly Bridgers. Known for her recent part in supergroup Boygenius’ the record and 2020 album Punisher, she has demonstrated she is more than capable of writing and leading a fantastic song. Her writing talents have been contributed and do shine through, but it seems a shame, then, that she is mainly consigned to backing vocals in the Frankenstein album. Her and Berninger’s voices do combine beautifully in “This Isn’t Helping”, but as Berninger’s vocals are at the forefront of every song, it might have made sense to let Bridgers’ powerhouse singing take the front seat here.
The album’s strongest points are its singles—particularly those with a faster tempo. “Eucalyptus” and “Tropic Morning News” do the job of varying the album’s tempo, with a more punchy beat in the former and more of a techno-sounding one in the latter. Band member Aaron Dessner has called “Tropic Morning News” a turning point for the band, and its lyrics make sense when viewed through that lens—‘I was suffering more than I let on / The tropic morning news was on / There’s nothing stopping me now / From saying all the painful parts out loud.’ The lyrics very much reflect the struggles of both Berninger and the band.
Dessner already has ties to the album’s biggest musical guest—he produced two of Taylor Swift’s recent albums, Folklore and Evermore. Swift contributes to what is arguably the strongest song on the album, “The Alcott”, written and sung with Berninger. Swift’s cowriting shows in the track due to her tendency to link her songs together. Berninger has clarified that The Alcott is a hotel bar, later saying “It’s about two people with a long history returning to a place and trying to relive a certain moment in time.” This is reminiscent of a line from Taylor Swift’s “Getaway Car”, on the Reputation album (“I’m in a getaway car / I left you in a motel bar.”) There’s a thematic bookend of leaving and reconnecting present, with her and Berninger playing the roles of a couple within the song. Their back-and-forth is the ideal collaboration, with each of them getting more or less equal time in the song.
Overall, First Two Pages Of Frankenstein is in equal measure mournful and hopeful—not unlike Robert Walton’s letters in the book. With an even broader variety of writing talent than usual but little variation in texture for the listener, the album is a pleasing return for the band without making a great mark in the listener’s memory.
Words by Casey Langton
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