When releasing their ninth studio album, First Two Pages Of Frankenstein, this April, The National spoke of nearly breaking up during the pandemic, and the fruitful but exhausting process of coming out the other side. This process was documented on an album frequent in its beauty, but with a heaviness that reflected the tumultuous recent history of the band.
If its release felt like an exhale and a shedding of skin, they reap the rewards on its surprise follow-up and sister record, Laugh Track. Releasing the album on an unconventional Monday, just three days after they announced it on stage at their own Homecoming Festival in Cincinnati, feels in keeping with the new record’s energy – this is the freest and most unburdened the band have sounded in years, maybe ever.
The story of Laugh Track feels similar to the pair of albums the band’s multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer Aaron Dessner made with Taylor Swift in 2020. After writing Folklore, he and Swift felt a continued energy, and took it into sequel Evermore. On the tour for Frankenstein, The National worked on impulse, penning instinctive new jams in soundchecks and following their gut until another album’s worth of songs appeared before their eyes.
It’s no surprise, then, that the songs that make up Laugh Track flow with unfiltered energy and spontaneity. Early highlight ‘Deep End (Paul’s In Pieces)’, is an exquisite, driving hit that foregrounds the unique, eternally underrated drumming of Bryan Devendorf. If Frankenstein saw Devendorf largely working with skittish electronic beats, here the best drummer in indie rock is let out of the gate like a restless stallion, and provides the propulsion that’s always bound the band’s best work together.
Laugh Track runs for 59 minutes but doesn’t feel nearly as laboured over as some of the band’s latter day work. Matt Berninger’s rhymes and intonation on the gorgeous ‘Turn Off The House’ and propulsive ‘Coat On A Hook’ flow effortlessly, like a dam that’s finally been released. It’s true for Bryan too, who sends the dark, gloomy ‘Space Invader’ to its cacophonous conclusion with his most impassioned, clattering percussion in years.
It’s monster closing track ‘Smoke Detector’, though, that’s most emblematic of this latest iteration of The National. The song was born in an impromptu soundcheck jam this summer, and still maintains this unpolished energy in its final form. Over nearly eight minutes, the band interlock wonderfully, thrashing through a punk rock epic while Berninger sings with a raw, burning passion not heard since 2005’s Alligator, an exorcism after his well-documented recent depression and writers’ block.
It’s one of the best songs of the band’s career, and a signifier of their renewed connection. For a band who have largely been stuck in one gear on recent albums, it’s an ecstatic breakthrough and a window into the future. Frankenstein – the band’s best album in a decade – was wrenched from the depths of a near-breakup and Berninger’s depression; Laugh Track flows freely in the afterglow.