Lore and storytelling have always been prominent in every album released by The National. With their ninth album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein, which came out in April, the narrative aspect took center stage. Following their collaborations with Taylor Swift on her pandemic albums Folklore and Evermore, their profile had risen. However, the band dynamics seemed “fragile” due to life changes and frontman Matt Berninger’s writer’s block. These challenges were apparent in the music, but acknowledged that they had succeeded in proving their prowess to both themselves and the waiting world.
Laugh Track is described as a “surprise double album,” whether due to its unexpected release (despite some fan forum leaks) or because the desire to release this material emerged unexpectedly. Earlier this year, Aaron Dessner revealed that over 25 songs were completed during the initial sessions, and he was proud of the band’s “conviction” in selecting the 11 tracks that comprised First Two Pages…
- Additional Article: Phoebe Bridgers’ Benevolent Move: “Waiting Room” For Charity
However, everything changed in early June when the band began soundchecking what would later become the closing track, “Smoke Detector,” an almost eight-minute jam that injected the jagged edges that some felt were lacking in ‘First Two Pages…’. The live performance from that stage is predominantly preserved here, strikingly raw, with Berninger’s phrase “Smoke detector, smoke detector / All you need to do is protect her” as stark and memorable as his best. This song has since become a live staple on their recent summer tour.
This immediacy, reminiscent of Alligator, contributes to the success of Laugh Track. The band re-recorded nine of the new songs from the existing batch, and they also made room for their 2022 Bon Iver collaboration, ‘Weird Goodbyes.’ Bryan Devendorf’s drumming, thunderous, complex, and cutting, takes on greater importance in each song. Tracks like “Deep End (Paul’s In Pieces)” and “Dreaming” become instantly memorable. The crescendo of ‘Space Invader’ represents one of the band’s heaviest moments in a while, with live drumming that eclipses the largely electronic contributions of “First Two Pages…“
Connections between the two records are evident. Phoebe Bridgers lends her backing vocals to Laugh Track‘s title track. “Coat On A Hook” and “Hornets” are punctuated with Berninger’s cryptic observations of a relationship in crisis. ‘Crumble’ benefits from the duet with Roseanne Cash, and “Alphabet City” simmers with sonic tension, reminiscent of the previous record’s material.
The precision of First Two Pages…‘s singles like “Tropic Morning News” and ‘Eucalyptus’ is somewhat absent, but the looser structures and the decision to allow the songs room to grow, both melodically and lyrically, pay off. In a statement shared with the record, Berninger describes the period as “feeling like shedding a skin,” and the band ventures into the unknown once again for their next creative cycle. This promises an exciting new chapter in their journey.