The National – The First Two Pages of Frankenstein (2023)

First Two Pages of Frankenstein The National album cover
Fair Dealing/Fair Use

A friend and I, in an effort to broaden our musical appreciation, agreed to listen to and review albums we would never normally listen to. Due to the effort this involved, the scope broadened after a short while to intermittently include those albums that we would normally listen to (mostly new releases). Those albums which we would not normally listen to were selected at random from the book 1001 Albums You Must Listen to Before You Die, a book that I would not recommend.

The reviews were never intended to be published in any way but may bring some enjoyment to the fair folk of this parish. 

 First off: a confession. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned / changed my mind on my initial opinion of First Two Pages of Frankenstein.

It isn’t as bad as I first thought.

That isn’t to say it’s good. And nowhere near great. Nor that my frustration with The National for failing to release more Alligator- and Boxer-type music has waned. Just that, with an effort, one was able to wrench one’s hopes and expectations away from the album and set it up as much on its own as possible. And, when that was achieved, it revealed to myself as what it is: it’s fine. That’s the best I can say about it. How tragic that that’s positive.

For a ninth studio album this one will actually win new fans. Which is odd. By this point in a band’s career those purchasing are normally only those in for the long haul. Such is the power of collaborations, for better or worse) and there are three worth on here.

Cementing themselves in modern-Americana-folk-tradition (yes, I know; let’s not try to pigeon hole anything huh) is collaboration 1: Sufjan Stevens. There’s likely an equal power play here: Stevens isn’t as well known as The National; his reach isn’t as wide. Even though his music is consistently bold, different and quality, his fanbase remains. There are likely few StephensFans who do not know of The National; but there are likely many National fans who came aboard during the High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me eras who do not know of Stephens. So it’s mutually beneficial: one brings a high calibre of music credential, the other brings exposure.

Numero 2: current Flavour of the Week Ms. Phoebe Bridgers. She’s credited on two tracks. I don’t know much about her more than a few songs but she seems quality and sincere and one of those bridger-bands (see what I did there) that give mainstream-music listeners a veneer of listening to more cult bands, and people-who-only-listen-to-non-mainstream-music the ability to refute the claim they only like something because nobody else has heard of them. It’s a win-win for both Nat and Bridgers here. Nat get seen to be plugging up and coming artistes and open them up to a newer audience who in the vanity of youth would dismiss them as too old whilst Bridgers gets a vote of confidence from a heavy hitter.

Now, colab number C: Taylor Swift.

I’ll let you make your own mind up about this. There is no right or wrong answer; but I’ll tell you the right answer after some stats to consider first:

–       Current Spotify-play count for this track (The Alcott) accounts for 31% of songs played off the album alone (26 millions out of 81 millions; ball park);

–       Tracks either side of the Swift-colab are the third and fourth lowest played songs on the album. This suggests Taylor Swift fans do not know what an album is (like we needed reminding);

–       It has twice as many plays as the second highest played (26 dark satanic mills vs 13);

–       On Nat’s landing page, the colab is listed as the second of the five-most prominent songs (a product of time spent uploaded vs plays); on Swift’s it doesn’t make her top five.

What can we learn here?

What we can learn is this:

The National are fucking sell outs and instead fraternising with a bit of skirt for sales should get back to learning how to the play the fucking guitar and writing lyrics like a drop of ink in a glass of water.

What the hell, folks. The only winner here is Swift who gets the credibility of collaborating with a big boy of indie. Her agency deserve a reach around for landing this gig. What kind of musical insecurity do The National have to need to butter up teenage and tween girlies and closeted homos.  They don’t need the exposure; there is no credibility to be gained.

Nothing against Swift, she works the song well. But of all the female vocalists under the sun could they not have used their heft to pluck from the swampy waters a struggling-but-talented vocalist and given her the platform. Swift doesn’t need this; they don’t need it. What were they thinking?

And that’s the problem with this album: it’s overshadowed by this colab. There is almost a return to proper National here: New Order T-Shirt; Tropical Morning News. Berninger’s crooning is back with a heavy wrecking ball of despair.

The musical accompaniment has admittedly changed: where’s the Mr November percussion that’s a six-trailered lorry hurtling down the freeway by a drunk redneck? Where’s the Slow Show or Geese of Beverley Road guitar intimacy? You won’t find it because it isn’t there. I should forgive them for that; but I can’t. Because whilst they were trying to work out the commercial advantages of working with Taylor Swift they should’ve been listening to their own most critically-acclaimed and fan-rated albums Boxer and Alligator (see Sputnikmusic: 4.3 / 5.0 each) and working out what the hell those albums had that they could bring to the table here.

But fuck it. Why would they when they can sniff Yankee Dollar and Yankee Skirt and make ‘new connections’ and reach ‘new audiences’. Here’s the crux, Nat: those ‘new audiences’ don’t give a shit about you or your music. They won’t ever buy it: they’ll only ever stream it. They won’t ever buy a ticket to your shows because you are not the main event on your own album. Heck they don’t even know what an album is.

So there we have it. This is an almost-album. It’s Tiger Woods finishing fourth, or fifth, and the media saying how great that is because he’s so old now. Well it isn’t because it’s fourth or fifth. The National are now at a point in their career where they’re having to have younger leaner artistes carry them. Prove me wrong.

Apparently in Canada now, Medically Assistance in Dying (MAID) accounts for 30% of all deaths. 30% of plays are a single song with Taylor Swift? Oh the irony.

Mic drop.

© Cromwell’s Codpiece 2024