R.E.M. had been a band for 24 years when they released their worst album, 2004’s Around the Sun, a record that magnified that aging act’s growing weaknesses and succumbed to sheer tedium. The National, perhaps not coincidentally, were also marking 24 years together when they released First Two Pages of Frankenstein in April this year. While not as disastrously dull as Around the Sun, that record dragged in similar ways. Both albums over-relied on programmed drums, and both gambled on the misguided hope that studio refinement might prove a fair substitute for live energy. It’s hard to imagine many Taylor Swift fans introduced to the National through her feature on Frankenstein became converts.
R.E.M. responded to their misfire by taking a few years to recalibrate and returning with a rock record. The National have taken the opposite approach. Just five months after Frankenstein, they’ve released a companion album, Laugh Track, featuring material written alongside its predecessor. True to its mirrored cover art, Laugh Track plays largely like The Next Two Pages of Frankenstein, continuing its predecessor’s subdued mood and reclusive purview, with singer Matt Berninger further chronicling depressive withdrawal and deteriorating relationships (“Friendships are melting/Nothing is helping,” he despairs). That may disappoint fans hoping that the muted reception to Frankenstein might inspire the band to shake things up, but Laugh Track does fine-tune its predecessor’s approach, albeit subtly. The band recorded most of it after Frankenstein, using their tour behind that album to road test and refine the stray ideas from its writing sessions, so the execution is slightly tweaked, less rigid, more freeform.
Most noticeably, drummer Bryan Devendorf returns to a real kit after Frankenstein primarily relegated him to machines. That’s a huge upgrade: Devendorf’s drumming has long been the 5-Hour Energy shot that keeps this band from drifting into slumber. Even though he’s rarely granted much volume to play with, he packs drama into even some of the record’s slowest songs; you can hear where the applause is supposed to go. His fidgety, racing percussion introduces intrigue to the otherwise staid “Turn Off the House,” and he propels “Space Invader” toward the kind of cathartic outro this band used to throw down all the time but now reserves only for the rare nights when the sitters are free and nobody has work the next morning.
As has become the norm on National albums, there are some guests. Phoebe Bridgers returns on the title track, a sweet little song about looking on the extremely relative bright side, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon shadows Berninger on “Weird Goodbyes,” the string-kissed 2022 single conspicuously left off of Frankenstein. Big names, both, but they’re basically accompanists; their voices may be on these songs but their fingerprints are not. That’s not the case with Rosanne Cash, who plays Lady Gaga to Berninger’s Bradley Cooper on the late-album standout “Crumble.” It’s the rare late-period National song you can imagine somebody other than Berninger crushing at karaoke.
Laugh Track could use more changeups like this, because even when it locks into a blissful, easy groove that Frankenstein struggled to sustain, it can’t shake the sense of sameness that’s haunted the National’s last few releases. Did we really need this many more sullen piano ballads? Or another song about being no good at parties? The group’s last nine records have already so exhaustively excavated Berninger’s psyche that there’s not much left to reveal.
The album saves its biggest departure for last: “Smoke Detector,” a Velvet Underground-style jam where Berninger spits incensed, abstractionist poetry over gnarly guitars for nearly eight minutes: “Make a list of your loved ones in order of height/Laugh at the blackbirds in the knack of the night,” he seethes. Hastily written at a soundcheck just months ago, it was the last song completed for Laugh Track, and it feels like it came from a completely different album. After so much composed beauty, its rawness is a corrective, pointing toward a way forward now that they’ve purged the last of Frankenstein’s material from their system. This band still has a fierce rock record in them. Maybe next time they’ll make it.