Phoebe Bridgers, Taylor Swift and Sufjan Stevens join Matt Berninger and co on the follow-up to I Am Easy To Find
The National occupy a strange and unusual place in the world of popular music. They’re massive – shifting thousands of tickets in massive venues around the world – and they are (famously) the favourite band of the world’s biggest pop star, but… That’s about it?
They’re not regularly described as an influence by many bands (if any); their albums rarely feature on ‘best ever’ lists and the general consensus is that their songwriting muse has faded, leaving their listeners the victims of ever diminishing artistic returns for at least a decade (Boxer is 16 years old this year, but it feels like longer).
So they’ve never been so famous or popular, and never been so bloody plain – their last album, I Am Easy To Find, was a real slog. Most frustrating was the frequent relegation of their drummer Bryan Devendorf (one of indie rock’s finest) to a minor role, while the songwriters filled the rhythms with drum machines, programmed beats or glitch skronks. It’s bordering on criminal. Interpol have never put Sam Fogarino in the corner, have they?
Unlike their previous record, there are a handful of saveable songs amongst all the wearying sop-rock. Eucalyptus is a winner, by far the best thing here. At points it does sound like a drunk dad misremembering lyrics while doing a decent karaoke job over a John Mayer backing track, but it’s charming in a goofy way.
New Order T-shirt has cute nostalgic lyrics, but sadly does all its best work within 30 seconds and seems to spark rather than fully burn. If only it was called ‘New Order Song’. The ambient pop of opener (which apparently features Sufjan Stevens) is fun while it lasts, and the first of two Phoebe Bridgers features – This Isn’t Helping – does a decent job of conjuring a whiff of old The National. A highlight, for sure.
Sadly, by the end of Track 5 – Tropic Morning News – the best of the album is over. It gets slower, hazier and less engaging as it drags its ghost home. Even Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers can’t raise the tempo or the intrigue with their largely anodyne performances (on The Alcott and Your Mind Is Not Your Friend, respectively.) Tropic Morning News itself is barely a highlight – and it works best when it tries to sound like The War On Drugs. The too-short guitar solo is probably the most interesting thing on the whole record.
To have your album title reference the greatest work of fiction ever written and hand in an album this flavourless is almost offensive, especially when they actually have the power to blast away all of their peers and contemporaries lurking within the rhythm section. We’ve heard Turtleneck!
Whoever is making the final decisions on songwriting and production nowadays seems to be intent on doing things their own way, pushing ever harder into the middle ground. Sadly, that means that First Two Pages Of Frankenstein is the second consecutive album that lives up to the very accusation The National’s detractors have been making about them from the start: they’re actually, frequently, rather boring.