Album Of The Week: The National – First Two Pages Of Frankenstein

Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers help The National work out their worries on our pick of the week’s new releases

Maybe it’s dangerous to try and read too much into National lyrics. Deliberately impressionistic, wilfully abstract, the words lay like traps to lure you into giving them meaning. But as the band soundtrack their own resurrection with a record that almost never happened, it’s impossible not to read First Two Pages Of Frankenstein as the story of the breakup and makeup that saved them. 

“I was in a very dark spot where I couldn’t come up with lyrics or melodies at all, and that period lasted for over a year,” Berninger says in the liner notes. “Even though we’d always been anxious and argued quite a lot whenever we were working on a record, this was the first time it ever felt like maybe things really had come to an end.”

The National - Eucalyptus (Official Video)

“What if we moved back to New York?” argues back ‘Eucalyptus’, the sparse but soaring second track on the album, sung like a punk song remixed into lush indie rock. “What about the instruments? What about the Cowboy Junkies? / What about the Afghan Whigs? / What about the Mountain Valley Spring? / What about the ornaments? / What if I reinvented again?”

Maybe it’s just the memory of divvying up a record collection at the end of a relationship. Maybe it’s just Matt Berninger leaving clues that don’t go anywhere. Whatever it is, the reinvention of The National is written large all over First Two Pages Of Frankenstein – a journey back to self-confidence in some of the most emotionally direct songs the band have ever given us. 

Where ‘Once Upon A Poolside’ opens the album like the end credits of a film, ‘Send For Me’ closes it with a chorus of genuine hope that feels almost religious. Ebbing and swelling without ever delivering the crash of their biggest hits, First Two Pages Of Frankenstein moves gently to uplift, but it earns every moment. 

‘Tropic Morning News’ is the most likely to get radio time – Bryce Dessner’s fuzzy guitar recalling the catchiest bits of Sleep Well Beast – but it’s far from the only flecks of grandeur on the record. ‘Alien’ feels the most like vintage National. ‘New Order T-Shirt’ the most elegiac. ‘Grease In Your Hair’ the punchiest. 

The National - New Order T-Shirt (Official Visualizer)

And the band aren’t doing it all on their own. Sufjan Stevens whispers on the opener and Phoebe Bridgers’s plays two tracks (her voice used like seasoning on ‘This Isn’t Helping’ and ‘Your Mind is Not Your Friend’), but it’s Taylor Swift brings the most of her own style. Joining Berninger on ‘The Alcott’ for a duet that entwines the album’s cinematic centrepiece, Swift’s vocals introduce the other side of the argument. 

“I tell you my problems…” he reasons, “Have I become one of your problems?” she answers. Ending the track with a confession that love isn’t lost after all, the middle chapter of First Two Pages Of Frankenstein lands like a turning point. Maybe the relationship is worth fighting for. Maybe there’s a chance. Maybe it’s not about that at all. 

Released: 28 April 2023
Label: 4AD
On TourSeptember 2023