The National: First Two Pages of Frankenstein – thoughtful, evocative and a tad underwhelming

These slow-burning songs never quite ignite, despite the arguably incongruous presence of big-name guests

First Two Pages of Frankenstein
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Artist: The National
Genre: Rock
Label: 4AD

First Two Pages of Frankenstein is an album that almost didn’t happen. After a purple patch that spawned The National’s album I Am Easy to Find, in 2019, and Matt Berninger’s superb solo debut, Serpentine Prison, in 2020, the frontman and lyricist found himself creatively and emotionally spent.

In his own words, the man responsible for songs like Bloodbuzz Ohio and Fake Empire had hit “a very dark spot where I couldn’t come up with lyrics or melodies at all”, admitting that it was “the first time it ever felt like maybe things really had come to an end”.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. Berninger rallied, dug deep into his artistic well and managed to wring some positivity out of a difficult period, although you wouldn’t necessarily conclude that after hearing this record. The National’s ninth studio album has been described as “a new era” for the band by Bryce Dessner, its guitarist and pianist, although perhaps more accurately it sounds like a transitional period.

There once was a time, for example, when the prospect of The National collaborating with the world’s biggest pop star was preposterous. Yet here we are, Taylor Swift (who has worked extensively with Aaron Dessner in recent years) duetting with Berninger on the moody, slow-moving piano ballad The Alcott, a short-story song depicting a meeting between former lovers. There’s no question of Swift’s talent or musicianship, but her mellow voice sounds doubly incongruous in such a setting.


She’s not the only guest here, though. Phoebe Bridgers lends her voice to two tracks, the playful piano ballad Your Mind Is Not Your Friend and the elegantly understated This Isn’t Helping, a slowly building, multilayered song with musical references to the band mentioned on the earlier track New Order T-Shirt. Elsewhere, Sufjan Stevens’s low-key murmur is barely traceable on the album’s mournful opener, Once Upon a Poolside.

The National have ticked the thoughtful and evocative boxes with every album, their slow-burning songs taking time to reveal their majesty via repeated listens. There’s a niggling sense here, however, that these songs are simply a little underwhelming, perhaps because of Berninger’s state of mind while he was writing them or maybe because of that aforementioned shift in the band’s approach.

Aside from the clipped pace of Tropic Morning News and the vigorous Grease in Your Hair, there is little to contrast the dominant mournful tone, and although there is quiet beauty here in abundance, there’s not a whole lot of verve and joyful clamour.

The National have been teetering on the precipice of the mainstream for several years; it’s unlikely that this is the collection to tip the band over the edge. That could yet turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She writes about music and the arts for The Irish Times