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Album Review: The National evokes an optimistic melancholia with ‘First Two Pages of Frankenstein’

In 1818, Mary Shelly opened her novel “Frankenstein” with a description of cold and bleak wastelands that elicit a sense of hope and future, despite their frozen nature. Over two centuries later, an indie rock group from Cincinnati, Ohio, drew inspiration from that classic to bring their music back from the brink of the end. 

“First Two Pages of Frankenstein” is the most recent album released by The National, a band that has not released music since 2019 when “I Am Easy to Find” hit the music scene. During the pandemic, the group’s frontman, Matt Berninger, released his first solo album, “Serpentine Prison.” While that album received average reviews and did not flop by any means, The National’s most recent album certainly accomplished everything that “Serpentine Prison” tried but failed to. It depicts the realities of living life in sadness, while trying to maintain creativity and relationships through a time that is not easy to live in. 

The album features three guests, all of whom demonstrate how intertwined the indie music scene is. Sufjan Stevens provides backup vocals on “Once Upon A Poolside,” Phoebe Bridgers is featured on “This Isn’t Helping” and “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend,” and the current queen of the music industry, Taylor Swift, sings on “The Alcott.” 

While each artist certainly brings their own style to the album, none of them sing their own verses. They either harmonize with what Berninger is singing, or add additional lines that act as a call and response to his voice. The choice to feature additional artists in this way truly demonstrates that the focus of “First Two Pages of Frankenstein” is the band itself. Many speculations from the music industry have led to an assumption in recent years that The National may be done for, but this album certainly proves that these musicians work best together, and still have brilliant and original material to create. 

This album incorporates the new style that was seen in their 2019 album, along with bringing back classic techniques from their earlier albums. Songs like “New Order T-Shirt” and “Tropic Morning News” sound much more like songs from “I Am Easy To Find,” but they nevertheless feature the same lyrical intensity that the band has always been known for. Through the use of rhetorical questions and picture-painting imagery, The National has always been able to create poetry out of the most relatable sadnesses of the average person. 

“Ice Machines” is the perfect example of Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s folksy and versatile guitar riffs that contribute worlds to any song. That song also features a purposefully uncomfortable rhyme scheme that, once again, demonstrates the richness of the band’s lyrical style. “Alien” is another song the lyrics of which will make anyone gasp out loud.  

Every song on the album that features Bryan Devendorf’s impeccable drumming are reminders that his talent is one of the most distinct indicators of a National song, and his infectious rhythm highlights the rest of the music nicely. 

Berninger’s vocal style is best highlighted in “Eucalyptus,” which sounds much more like the original National albums, and the swelling and layered vocals of which are riveting. 

Throughout the album, Berninger sings to an unidentified other party. Whether that other being is meant to represent a person from his past, the audience, the music or something else entirely,  fluctuates throughout the album. The use of this external figure allows Berninger to translate a feeling of personal desolation through the lens of his career and relationships in a way that is just specific enough to make sense, but vague enough to remain applicable to the audience’s emotions. 

The album is perfectly encapsulated in the last song, “Send For Me.” The song is desolate and does little to make the listener feel better. However, it is nevertheless an optimistic view of the lives of the artists, and their future as a band. As Berninger sings in “Grease In Your Hair,” “you give me such a future feeling.” 


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