Album Review: The National – Laugh Track

The National have even more to unpack on the surprise companion record to First Two Pages Of Frankenstein

No one’s laughing on Laugh Track. The surprise (but definitely hinted at) companion album to First Two Pages Of Frankenstein is concerned with murky emotions only; the greyest, most uncomfortable, most deeply ironic of feelings. “Maybe we’ve always been like this,” shrugs Matt Berninger and collaborator Phoebe Bridgers on the album’s title track, which sees the two of them sadly accepting a lonely fate. A later conclusion: “Maybe this is just the funniest version of us that we’ve ever been.”

The National - Deep End (Paul's In Pieces) (Official Video)

The group play sad clowns across the record. The lines between real and imagined are blurred, seven-minute epics like ‘Space Invader’ made uncomfortably visceral by Matt Berninger’s obsessive whispers beneath the track’s steady crescendo of sound. “Why’d I leave it like that?” he asks over and over again, slowly drowned out by a huge indie electrorock instrumental. Whilst First Two Pages… made some reaches towards radio singles, Laugh Track only wants to make the listener understand. Sonically, the songs take the space they need, whilst lyrically, Berninger always shoots from the hip.

The National - Laugh Track (feat. Phoebe Bridgers) (Lyric Video)

“Don’t leave me here at this party like a coat on a hook,” he begs in ‘Coat On A Hook’. “Your coat’s in my car, I guess you forgot / It’s crazy the things we let go,” he shrugs in ‘Weird Goodbyes’, a 2022 collaboration with Bon Iver that found its proper home on Laugh Track. ‘Crumble’ with Rosanne Cash, a country duet dressed up with some indie rock guitars, sees the two leaving everything on the table. “If you say it like that and don’t want to take it back, I’m going to crumble,” they warn each other. “Get yourself ready to catch what you can of me”.

The National - Alphabet City (Official Video)

Consistent it may be, but the record avoids becoming repetitive with the help of some creative sonics. Opening with the anxiety-imbued instrumental of ‘Alphabet City’, overlapping riffs create a mounting sense of tension, they move through the vaguely frenetic synths of ‘Dreaming’ and the indie folk of ‘Laugh Track’, the latter of which is reminiscent of the work done by Aaron Dessner on Taylor Swift’s folklore. ‘Turn Off The House’, which could be about starting over or about something far darker, layers its gentle electric guitar under an insistent beat that sounds like a click track. ‘Hornets’, in which Berninger laments an unhealthy love, sounds like a piece of Americana. The band weave between sub-genres, but the aim is always the same – to get straight to the core of the emotion and vomit it beautifully and violently to the surface.

The National - Smoke Detector (Lyric Video)

The National close out with ‘Smoke Detector’, a near-eight-minute evasive piece of lyrically dense art rock that sees Berninger monologue about everything from pharmacy slippers to the last living pigeon. Noisy, gritty and occasionally melodic, it pulls us completely into his psyche, or Paul’s, or whoever the record is about. The central question: “You don’t know how much I love you, do you?” Cue laugh track. How could we not know? There’s nothing left to tell.

Released: 18 September 2023
Label: 4AD
On tour: September 2023