The National became one of the defining indie bands of the late 2000s and early 2010s for two reasons: their combination of stately literary flourishes and sublimated musical aggression that often builds to a baroque, brutal climax, and their unique gift for capturing genteel Gen X and millennial mania. The Ohio-born band make music for a generation whose freeform employment ended up being as soul-crushing as their parents’ cubicle jobs. I say this as a compliment: it’s challenging to write about middle-class malaise and make it sound so gripping.
In recent years, the band has faced criticism for becoming boring. That’s hard to argue regarding the music: there were fairly drastic overhauls in 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, finding a midway point between frosty IDM and U2-ish bombast, and 2019’s I Am Easy to Find, which introduced female singers to counterpoint frontman Matt Berninger’s rich baritone. The criticism seems to refer to a kind of lyrical slippage from reckless romanticism and withering creative-class satire to half-hearted depiction of an upper-middle class creative life. Take Eucalyptus, from the band’s ninth album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein, released in April, in which the protagonist wonders what to do about the bulk luxury water delivery once his wife’s gone.
Laugh Track, the National’s surprise 10th album, is billed as the second half of Frankenstein, with all but one song written at the same time. But the link feels surface-level: Laugh Track does away with the airy atmosphere and hand-wringing solipsism of Frankenstein, instead adopting a more grownup take on the existential conundrums of earlier National records. This album once again finds Berninger playing the role of the elegant nihilist – though this time, that mundane future has become a mundane present. The central metaphor of the title track, a Phoebe Bridgers collaboration, turns out to be a bitter complement to a sad acceptance of one’s fate: “Maybe we’ll never lighten up / Maybe this isn’t gonna quit / I think it’s never coming back.” Berninger and Bridgers’ interwoven vocals are lovely; the sentiment is shatteringly bleak.
Berninger’s characters here seem to exist in discomfiting liminal zones, narrating their lives as if from outside their own bodies: Space Invader is an avalanche of cascading “what ifs” that builds to a raucous crescendo powered by Bryan Devendorf’s panic-attack drumming; the protagonists on Alphabet City and synth-pop ballad Weird Goodbyes search desperately for sentiment but can’t find their way out of an anaesthetised state. Although Weird Goodbyes adopts the squeaky-clean, somewhat mawkish tone of Frankenstein, Alphabet City sounds desperate and strained, with Berninger adopting a compellingly harried guise.
Laugh Track closes with the strange, nauseating, eight-minute post-punk tirade Smoke Detector. It reframes the whole album: here, finally, is the teeth-baring payoff to 11 songs of building dread and anxiety. It feels like one long scream, a frustrated rejoinder to the album’s sad-sack protagonists: “Sift through the slush and the ash and the dust / Or whatever stands out for whatever reason / It’s a laugh for a rush, a remembered feeling / You don’t know what it means but you don’t want to leave it,” Berninger rages. It’s a moment of intense, acidic awakening that feels like a fresh start.
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