The National surprise-released their 10th album, Laugh Track, early on Monday morning.
It follows the April release of First Two Pages of Frankenstein and its existence was announced during the group’s hometown festival Homecoming, which took place in Cincinnati on September 15-16 (where they had a limited edition on sale).
The record was kind of a surprise for the band, at least given the backstory. According to the album’s bio, The National wrote a majority of the material alongside Frankenstein and honed most of it during live performances on tour; those versions were captured later in impromptu sessions at producer Tucker Martine’s Portland studio. However, the nearly eight-minute closer “Smoke Detector” was actually recorded during soundcheck in Vancouver, featuring partially improvised lyrics about blackbirds, pharmacy slippers and a dog in the driver’s seat wearing a red helmet. Looking at the credits, additional sessions were held up at nearly 20 different locations, suggesting the recordings were rather impromptu and freewheeling.
The 25 Best Songs by The NationalFrom their 2001 debut to their latest album, these are the band’s best tracks
There’s no Taylor Swift on the record (who was last heard on Frankenstein’s “The Alcott”), but there are guest appearances from Bon Iver, Phoebe Bridgers and Rosanne Cash. You might recognize a few songs: “Weird Goodbyes” was actually released in 2022, while “Alphabet City” and “Space Invader” came out last month.
“Laugh Track represents us coming out of this long mutation period,” says frontman Matt Berninger in a press release. “I have no idea what’s going to happen next but it feels like the shedding of a skin, an exoskeleton. It’s really fun. We all feel out of the chrysalis and ready to figure out what kind of creature we are now.”
You can watch the band performing a new song called “Dreaming” below.
Overall impressions? While Frankenstein was gentle and introspective, this one is a little more rugged and epic, with drummer Bryan Devendorf maintaining the energy and focus on the more ethereal tracks. It’s still a solemn work, if occasionally unstructured: The chorus to “Turn Off the House” — a melancholy and atmospheric early number — comes in more like an afterthought.
The mindset of Berninger can probably best be summed up by the opening words of the title track. “Losing my momentum, losing my mind/Not enough to mention, not enough time/I can’t even say what it’s about/All I am is shreds of doubt.” When he’s not heartbroken, he’s referencing New York a lot, from “Alphabet City” to the very specific lyric “What if I’d stayed on the C train until Lafayette” (on “Space Invader”).
Primarily a very hushed recording, the finale “Smoke Detector” offers real — and odd for The National — energy and discord. It’s a powerful place for the band to land on a record that’s otherwise beautifully mournful.
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