The National - “First Two Pages of Frankenstein” review: Reinvent yourself
Words by Jan Tracz
The mellow melody floats on one of the richest albums in The National’s extraordinary discography.
On their Instagram account, the band stated that “this was not an easy album to make.” They wrote that “it was the first time it ever felt like maybe things really had come to an end. But at some point, there was a feeling of all of us leaning into each other in a new way.” First Two Pages of Frankenstein is the epitome of the band’s incessant vigour. Even on the verge of splitting up, they were still able to get away with a poetic collection of emotional confessions. It is gloomily sanguine and sanguinely gloomy at the same time.
While I Am Easy to Find, their latest record from 2019, had clear direction and sounded, somewhat, like a concept album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein is a set of eclectic tunes. Even so, despite its musical excess, it is a surprisingly coherent record, a thing of its own beauty. And, for the first time, the band invited top-tier artists: Sufjan Stevens, Phoebe Bridgers (she contributes to the two tracks) and ex-sweetheart of America, Taylor Swift.
Listen: after recording Achtung Baby, U2’s opus magnum, Bono and The Edge mentioned it was important for them to create an ideal track order, so their album would become a logical and passionate experience. First Two Pages of Frankenstein is all about the order and song transitions: the coherence reveals itself while listening to the album in its entirety. It carefully balances sweetness, bitterness and the feeling of regretting some disgraceful deeds. To illustrate an example, let’s use Eucalyptus. Despite already being an effective tune on its own, it gains new potency after following Once Upon a Poolside. When the album’s opening track sedately ends, Eucalyptus, with its frigid guitars, suddenly opens another resentful love story chapter. As a single, it is still top-notch, yet the smooth transition on the album gives it a distinctive energy.
The review’s title is not so incidental (as it looks in the first place). It seems like the record’s central theme is a journal of afterthoughts on how to salvage a broken relationship with the love of your life (and it sounds like life’s most distressing endgame). The aforementioned Eucalyptus deals with the process of splitting up possessions after a nasty breakup, on This Isn’t Helping, Matt Berninger acknowledges a moment when the partner stops caring (“Well, just when I thought/You don't even notice me at all”) and on The Alcott, a delicate duo with Swift, the lyrics evoke a story of a pair trying to hold on to each other and to remind themselves what they have always had. Through the composition’s choruses, we learn that the couple is dealing with a hard-to-heal crisis.
There is an ongoing theme of fractured relationships: for The National, the affinities end because time flies and people change, while our mindsets are still in the moments and places we met our current partners. The band’s concluding aphorism is also a sting in the tail: reinvent yourself and stop being sentimental before it’s too late. It’s a troubling, but veritable suggestion that emboldens the listener to make a difference in his/her personal life.
Is it a sorrow-kissed record? It feels like this, by design; eventually, every The National album proposes some dose of a quotidian sadness of everyday life and even listening to First Two Pages of Frankenstein is like looking into an abyss. But, at the end of the record, you become calm and the distress leaves your body with a soothing and hopeful tone emanating from Send for Me (Send for me whenever, wherever/Send for me, I'll come and get you).
And the whole effect of maybe-there-is-a-light-in-the-upcoming-tunnel is repeatedly drawing you with every new listening. The source of the album’s compelling ambience is the fact that all these songs aren’t verbose at all. Calling it “poetry” is too simple, but the band’s small narratives start and conclude at the right moments, with no understatements or any dispensable verses. You feel everything is in the right place – just like in Keats' poems.
There is an amorphous point, maybe somewhere elusive or unreachable for the human’s touch or eyesight, where the most heartbreaking grief meets plausible delight. First Two Pages of Frankenstein effortlessly reaches this place, making it truly accessible for the listener.