The National, hailing from Ohio, thrilled fans during their European tour opener in Dublin, and they had a surprise up their sleeves. On the first of their two hometown shows in Cincinnati last weekend, lead singer Matt Berninger announced the unexpected release of their latest album, “Laugh Track.” This album follows closely on the heels of their previous one, “First Two Pages of Frankenstein,” arriving just five months later.
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In retrospect, the surprise album shouldn’t have caught us off guard entirely. During the summer, the band had dropped a couple of singles, “Alphabet City” and “Space Invader,” hinting at more music in the works. In promotional interviews for “Frankenstein,” they also alluded to a substantial collection of songs in development.
What’s particularly intriguing about “Laugh Track” is that most of its tracks were recorded after the release of their last album, just as the band was gearing up for their European tour. In fact, the closing track, “Smoke Detector,” an almost eight-minute avant-garde rock masterpiece, was written and recorded as recently as June. It’s a pulsating departure from the rest of the album and offers a glimpse into the National’s evolving musical direction.
Visually, “Laugh Track” echoes the enigmatic aesthetic of their previous album, “Frankenstein.” It’s clear that the band considers these two albums as companion pieces. While “Laugh Track” leans towards a more free-spirited vibe, it’s still replete with what fans affectionately term “sad dad” songs. Rather than criticism, this is an acknowledgment that The National excels at capturing the nuances of middle age better than most of their contemporaries.
As seen in several of their recent albums, Matt Berninger remains fascinated by the theme of relationships falling apart and the efforts required to keep them intact. What adds depth to this exploration is the fact that he often collaborates on lyrics with his wife, Carin Besser, a former fiction editor for The New Yorker.
Berninger’s lyrics have long delved into themes of depression, anxiety, unease, and disappointment, and “Laugh Track” is no exception. In “Deep End (Paul’s in Pieces),” he contemplates “going off the deep end” and not getting enough sleep, while “Tour Manager” encapsulates the internalized turmoil with lines like “I don’t wanna talk about it, don’t like the way it sounds/Wanna keep it kinda quiet, gonna try to keep it down.”
The music crafted by Aaron and Bryce Dessner is consistently enchanting, and their arrangements are artful. The return of drummer Bryan Devendorf in full force is a welcome sight for fans. While “Frankenstein” experimented with a drum machine on a few tracks, “Laugh Track” benefits from Devendorf’s more organic approach.
The National maintains their tradition of featuring guest vocalists on a few tracks. “Laugh Track” includes appearances by Phoebe Bridgers on the meditative title track and Americana veteran Rosanne Cash on the faintly countrified “Crumble.” While some long-time fans may question the band’s increasing use of guest vocalists, both songs are executed exquisitely, with Berninger’s weathered baritone blending beautifully with the female voices.
The album also makes room for “Weird Goodbyes,” a touching stand-alone single from the previous year featuring the unobtrusive vocals of Bon Iver. It’s a song that showcases Berninger’s lyrical prowess, with lines like, “There’ll come a time I’ll wanna know I was here/Names on the doorframes, inches and ages/Handprints in concrete, at the softer stages.”
These lyrics resonated with listeners a year ago, and they hold even more weight now when considered in the context of a pair of albums that solidify The National’s position as one of America’s great musical treasures.
The National has enjoyed a strong connection with Ireland, notably through their collaboration with Lisa Hannigan and their ties to the Cork festival, “Sounds from a Safe Harbour,” curated by Aaron and Bryce Dessner. The band fondly recalled an early gig at Whelan’s during their Dublin performance. What started as an effort to distinguish themselves from early 2000s favorites like The Strokes has firmly established them as one of America’s premier bands, commanding large arenas with ease.
The Dublin concert held extra excitement with the recent surprise release of “Laugh Track.” The band seamlessly integrated songs from both “Laugh Track” and “Frankenstein” into their set. Opening on a delicate note with “Once Upon a Poolside,” they quickly upped the tempo with “Eucalyptus.” Matt Berninger’s vocal energy soared, though at times his voice showed signs of strain.
However, the performance hit a high point with “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” a thrilling and frenzied experience with drummer Bryan Devendorf delivering an exceptional performance. The addition of brass from touring musicians added even more vibrancy.
The new track, “Deep End (Paul’s in Pieces),” slid comfortably into the setlist and is likely to become a live favorite. “I Need My Girl” benefited from a stripped-down rendition, showcasing its uncommon beauty.
The concert alternated between high-energy, electrifying performances that allowed the band, especially the Dessner brothers, to rock out, and tender, introspective compositions that revolved around Berninger’s distinctive baritone. “Abel” and “Smoke Detector” catered to fans of the former, while “Hornets” and “Pink Rabbits” were delivered with such finesse that the enormity of the venue faded away.
After a somewhat uneven start, the concert reached exceptional heights in the later part of the show. “About Today,” one of their earliest songs, was a marvel, starting delicately and building into a cathartic wall of sound. “Graceless” saw Berninger venturing into the crowd, maintaining vocal excellence while his bandmates kept the electric tempo on stage.
The band played for nearly two hours straight before the encore. The final act was nothing short of spectacular. “Mr. November,” “Terrible Love,” and “Space Invader” comprised a wild and primal trilogy, showcasing the band’s relentless passion and energy. It was perhaps the most exhilarating 15 minutes of live music in recent memory.
The last song of the night, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” turned the audience into stars. Berninger, mindful of the toll on his vocal cords, pointed his microphone outward, stepping aside as his bandmates moved to the front to play. The crowd sang every word flawlessly, creating a communal experience that many longed for during the pandemic. The National proved they have the charisma and talent to pull off such memorable moments.
In conclusion, The National’s surprise album, “Laugh Track,” added an exciting dimension to their European tour opener in Dublin. Their performance showcased the band’s evolution and cemented their status as one of America’s greatest musical acts.