If it feels like you’ve already heard the brand-new album from The National — Laugh Track — there are three very good reasons for that. First, the album is basically an alternate universe version of the album they just released, The First Two Pages of Frankenstein, which dropped in April 2023. Second, one stand-out track on Laugh Track — the Bon Iver collaboration “Weird Goodbyes” — has been floating around for a year. Third, all National albums, a this point, have a beautiful Nationalness, which, is pervaded by a bittersweet melancholy symmetry that makes it feel like a sonic déjà vu blanket. In a hilariously low-key announcement at a concert in Chicago, The National dropped Laugh Track as a surprise album at midnight on Monday, September 18, 2023, and in almost every single way, it’s a better record than the one they were just promoting the hell out of.
At this moment, thinking of Laugh Track as a “companion” album to the most recent big National release, The First Two Pages of Frankenstein, is inescapable. A casual fan queuing up Laugh Track on iTunes or Spotify may think it is the same album since the cover art is essentially a colorized version of Frankenstein — a child holding the head of a mannequin, which, intentionally or not, might remind the sad dad fans of The National of how parenting feels; your kids are holding pieces of you and it’s unclear who is going to put you back together.
This sort of imagery is also their whole deal right now, and possibly, always. Speaking to Amanda Petrusich for The New Yorker this April, National frontman Matt Berninger said: “I love songs that look over the edge and describe the fall…Fear of my marriage falling apart is my worst fear ever.” This sentiment was very true on The First Two Pages of Frankenstein, but track-for-track, arguably, the mini-catharses of Laugh Track are simply more consistent. On “Hornets,” Berninger sings, “I don’t want to talk to you, because I don’t want to fight.” What adult, who is failing at adulting, hasn’t been there?
Listening to the twelve tacks of Laugh Track back-to-front, you really can’t help but wonder if this should have been the main record, and First Two Pages of Frankenstein, just a collection of solid B-sides in which Taylor Swift happened to appear. To put it another way, right now, Laugh Track is a weird sequel to First Two Pages of Frankenstein, but in a few years, those reputations might be inverted. For hardcore fans, this is the record we wanted in April, and that’s because the songs on Laugh Track are simply more memorable, and feel closer to what a National album should be.
Other than the aforementioned “Weird Goodbyes” (which was released as a standalone single in 2022), there’s not really a lead single on Laugh Track, but the thesis of the album, becomes clear on the fourth track, “Turn off the House,” which retreads familiar themes for the band; awkwardly moving on from something logistically hard in life, while retaining mixed-up teenager feelings inside, even though you’re in your 40s and supposedly over all that melodrama. This cocktail of emotions is exactly why aging millennials and younger Gen-Xers (especially parents) love The National. Our beloved ’90s bands may have defined the angst of our youth, but The National continues to capture the aches and longing of whatever we’re calling middle age these days.
Something that’s becoming a bit of a party trick on new National albums is the cool guest collaborations. The National probably became more famous to mainstream Swifties in 2020 thanks to Aaron Dessner collaborating with Taylor Swift on folklore, and then the entire band, along with Berninger’s signature vocals on the Swift evermore track “Coney Island,” which, if we’re just looking at Spotify, is probably the most famous National song ever. Still, for some National fans, Swift’s appearance on First Two Pages of Frankenstein, on the track “The Alcott,” was a bit distracting, sort of like having William Shatner cameo in your minimalist black box off-off Broadway play.
Thankfully, that’s not the case with the guests on Laugh Track, in which these collaborations feel appropriately scaled with what the band is trying to do. Again, the title track with Phoebe Bridgers is damn near-perfect, while the moody duet on “Crumbles” with the legendary Rosanne Cash is going to be hard for the band to replicate in a live show without her. Saying “Crumbles,” veers toward a country song would be wrong, but it’s also not not a National take on a country song either. Even on a National album that feels absurdly on brand for the self-described “sad dads” band, a song like “Crumbles” proves they can still surprise us.
Throughout Laugh Track, we get a cornucopia of sad dad National aphorisms, from the idea of a “full body shutdown” on “Turn off the House,” to the almost laughably on-the-nose encapsulation of all National lyrics ever on “Coat on a Hook,” when Berninger croons: “You’re the opposite of an open book.” You’d think with that lyric, The National couldn’t become more themselves. And yet, it’s again, on that title track, “Laugh Track,” located exactly in the middle of the album, when The National makes us the promise we hope they’ll always keep — “Maybe we’ll never lighten up.”