'First Two Pages of Frankenstein', the band's ninth studio album, helped quell some anxieties about their future. Fans, including collaborator Taylor Swift, remain as loyal as ever.
ByTravis M. Andrews
ByTravis M. Andrews
April 20, 2023 at 6:00 am EDT
HUDSON, N.Y. “It wasn't a civil war, not this time. But it was almost the end of the National.
It wouldn't have been a bad race. After all, the band wasn't the most likely choice of the New York rock explosion of the early part of the decade to become one of the genre's most enduring groups. It's a family affair, made up of Cincinnati natives who make textured emotional rock for adults. Twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner conduct various instruments (mainly guitar and piano), with Bryce providing orchestration; brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf handle the rhythm section, while vocalist Matt Berninger often writes the lyrics. and vocal melodies with his wife, Carin Besser.
They don't release chart-topping singles. They still retain the idea of a fully realized album, even in this age of Spotify. They pretty much invented the genre known as “sad dad rock,” but that's okay. “We did this to ourselves,” says Bryan Devendorf. (The description seems particularly apt as several band members enthusiastically discuss how to enlarge the fonts on their screens for easier reading as they rest before a late-February rehearsal. They're young enough to still be releasing anthemic rock songs, but old enough to start worrying about their kids' screen time.)
Their story arc doesn't quite fit the recipe for success in our pop-centric era, but unlikely as it seems, it has seen them play in amphitheaters around the world, become the soundtrack to both Obama campaigns, and conquer fans like Taylor Swift. “Fortunately, the National has never been in style, so it can't be out of style,” says Bryce Dessner.
Their music feels "like listening to someone's diary when I shouldn't," says superfan Antoni Porowski of Netflix's "Queer Eye." “There is something so romantic and beautiful about it.”
Part of the band's lore is that each of their eight albums nearly broke, that the infighting gets so bad during the creative process that they dubbed their 2007 release "Boxer." Hard truth or rock and roll myth? “We do, a little bit,” says Berninger. “But I would describe our band as a very loving, very healthy, kind and caring family.”
Anyway, there was no real struggle during the making of their ninth album – “First Two Pages of Frankenstein”, released on April 28th. “The process of making this song was by far the least fractured and contentious one in years. We weren't fighting each other anymore,” says Bryce. “We were fighting – sometimes throwing actual punches – for years.”
Instead, they found the simple joy of doing something together again, because for a few years it looked like another album just wasn't going to happen. The members literally split up, with Berninger in Los Angeles, Bryan in Ohio, Bryce in France, Aaron Dessner in Upstate New York and Scott Devendorf in Long Island. The pandemic has put a nearly perpetual 20-year touring schedule on ice. Everyone had other projects, and Berninger was completely blocked, falling into depression.
In some ways, the timing couldn't be worse, as the band certainly gained more than a few new followers after Aaron co-wrote and co-produced “Folklore” and “Evermore,” Swift's two pandemic records. The band appeared on the last record, opening up their work to new groups of potential fans.
However, everyone had the same thought:Maybe the Nationals are over.
It wasn't, but it looked close. Making the album was less of a civil war, more of a rebuilding. As Scott says, it's about "rebirth".
“That album kind of saved our band. I mean, each of our records has saved our band in one way or another,” says Berninger. “But this one, the record really came to the rescue.”
Hudson is a quaint town organized around a long strip of bars, restaurants and bespoke craft shops. A drunken bar patron refers to it as "upstate Brooklyn". What sounds like the theme of a national song. It's the kind of place where you can find dinner after 9 pm. on Sunday it's a scavenger hunt where you recognize half the residents after a day of walking where you can see a Devendorf brother buying Topo Chico in a CVS at 9am.
If the band is a family, Long Pond Studio, about 10 miles north of Hudson, is home. With architect Erlend Neumann, Aaron built it in 2015, one hundred meters from his house. The structure is reminiscent of the band's music: simple at first glance, increasingly complex on closer examination. Its first floor is divided into a kitchen and a studio with large windows that can open to the Hudson Valley, inviting the chirping of warblers nestled in the trees outside to the waiting microphones. The bedrooms are upstairs.
There is no tension today. They hang out in the studio's kitchen space, eating bananas, kale salad, insanely strong coffee, and homemade soup. They chat happily about their kids' relationship with video games (Minecraft is a popular one), who has it and who doesn't.coronavirus(somehow Berninger has so far eluded him), his appearance on Jimmy Fallon, updates to several Cincinnati-area high school gyms, the Afghan Whigs, and the winter storm crashing over the Hudson Valley later that night. At some point, Scott explains the concept of polarized sunglasses to Berninger.
And they talk about Long Pond.
Here they recorded 2017's "Sleep Well Beast", their seventh album, which earned them their first Grammy. The album cover is a studio snapshot. Two years later, they teamed up with filmmaker Mike Mills to collaborate on music for a short film that led to the I Am Easy to Find album.
The studio promised rest. But in a band known for its brutally endless touring schedule that also tried to balance lives with wives and children, everyone was exhausted. (“There are 365 days in a year. The national tours for 600 of them,” jokes musician Bartees Strange.)
“It felt like we started touring in 2001, we didn't really have a break,” says Aaron. After "I Am Easy to Find", "we were kind of exhausted".
“It was the end of a chapter, the trajectory we've been on since 'Alligator,'” which came out in 2005, says Bryce. “We had stretched the identity of what the National was to the breaking point.”
A pause seemed natural. With the pandemic sweeping the world, the band stopped touring. “So what we thought was going to be a short break turned into a really long break,” says Aaron. "And for the first time in 20 years as a band, we've kind of gone quiet."
The projects pulled them in different directions. On an unexpected day several weeks after the closure, Aaron received a text message from Swift asking if he would like to collaborate. He began producing other pop stars such as Ed Sheeran. Bryce, for his part, continued to score films for films such as “Bardo” by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Non-national projects abounded.
If ever there was a time to give up, this was it.
But one day, about a year later, Aaron was writing songs, like he did during the pandemic, and he thought:It can be a national song.
“At some point, we started to miss that engine in the band,” he says. “You start to crave it.”
If the pandemic was prolific for Aaron, it was the opposite for Berninger. Prior to 2020, he was working on a number of projects, including solo work, in what he calls a "manic creative state". But when the world shut down, he “hit the wall” on everything he was working on. “I fell off the bike or something. I've always worked on songs for so long, and the gears just froze.
He had experienced some version of writer's block before, for a month or two, but this felt different. A year has passed. The pandemic got worse. He has not made any progress on any songs from any projects.
“I never thought, 'It might really be gone' before. I had never entered into something so paralyzing,” says Berninger, comparing the feeling of losing one's sense, not being able to communicate at its most primal level. His bandmates suggested writing about not being able to write, but "it's hard to write about the dark when the lights are off".
Meanwhile, the band compiled over 25 musically polished songs that needed lyrics. They asked Berninger to come to Long Pond and sit with the songs and see what happened.
Often he muttered in a low register, searching for something that wasn't there…yet.
But the words were forming slowly.
And with time...
Pandemic restrictions began to ease and the band readied a short tour in 2022. Paralysis was no longer an option, which isn't to say the first few shows were easy - especially for an exuberant frontman prone to emoting shamelessly onstage. , holding a microphone up, stand over your head, slapping your thighs, walking into the audience to wail lyrics like, "I'm Mr. November, I ain't f***ing with us!" “It was very difficult for me to go back onstage and get excited about that artist,” says Berninger. At the first show back, “I could barely look at the crowd. I didn't want to be in front of people.” It helped to realize that many of the faces he saw were there all the time, coming to national shows for 15 years or more. With that, the band came back to life.
Berninger relates this while sitting in a huge trailer parked in front of Aaron's house, who is here because the house is under renovation. He pulls and messes up his short shorts gray hair, lounging on leather seats in front of the trailer's fake fireplace, stopping to laugh when I keep accidentally turning on the massage function on the armchair I'm sitting in. ("Suddenly, you're a lot more relaxed," Berninger jokes for the first time.)
“First Two Pages of Frankenstein” confronts fears, within the band and among its fans, that Nacional was over. Berninger says he doesn't always write with specific characters or stories in mind, but with snippets of images that come to mind while listening to the music and that often focus on "relationships falling apart". But a lot of it turns out to be about the band, the "central cog of our adult lives". So naturally, the album includes a number of songs about "things that are gone, or things that you fear are going to go away, so many songs about being disconnected from things," says Berninger.
“This is the closest we've ever been and I have no idea what's going on. Is this how this is all going to end?” he sings on the album's opener, "Once Upon a Poolside". The second track, “Eucalyptus,” is basically a list of “funny things” that a couple, or perhaps members of a group, are sharing before going their own ways, all the way to Mountain Valley Spring Water. “I was hurting more than I let on,” he laments in the “Tropic Morning News”.
But as the 11 songs go by, the skies light up. Closer he whispers, “Send for me anytime, anywhere. Send it to me. I'll get you.
The band often insists that their familial nature is what holds them together. Over the years, he has also built up an extended family, often inviting artists such as Sufjan Stevens, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Sharon Van Etten and others to stay in the studio while they record, sometimes adding ideas and flourishes to written songs. “We have the windows and doors open,” says Bryce. “Sometimes it's like a dead end. You end up at a dead end where you take a song as far as you can, and then it's really nice to go one step further with a collaborator.”
Stevens returns on the new album (on “Once Upon a Poolside”), which also includes newcomers Phoebe Bridgers and Swift, who sings a duet with Berninger.
As close as they've become, Aaron admits to being eager to ask the pop star to contribute. “I didn't want to put that pressure on her, just knowing how many times she's asked to do things. … So Matt wrote this song, 'The Alcott', the lead part, and you could hear there's a lot of room in it, and I thought Taylor might hear something.
So he sent it to her. About half an hour passed, and Aaron began to worry about "putting her in the uncomfortable position of having to say, 'I'm sorry.'
“By the time she responded, she had already written the song,” he says. “She is so talented. She just sang it into her phone and sent it back.
That sense of communal generosity extends to their fan base as well. When Porowski wore the band's T-shirts on “Queer Eye,” fans around the world flooded his inbox with messages like “'Are you a fan of National? I automatically love you because you understand what it's like to have a bleeding heart,'” he says. “When you meet another Nationals fan, you are immediately hooked.”
Perhaps no one embodies this phenomenon better than Bartees Strange. Beforerecording his debut album “Live Forever” during the pandemic, he made an EP of national covers.This caught the attention of the band's fans and soon the band, who now regularly invite Strange not just to open up, but occasionally to join them on stage. It's still surreal for Strange, who not only counts the National as his favorite band, but also as one of his biggest inspirations.
“They have proven throughout their careers that quality really matters. What great songs can win,” says Strange. “This didn't just happen for them, but it happened on their own terms. They never deviated from what they did, and the world opened up to them.”
“And now,” he adds, “they have one of the most loyal fan bases ever. Everyone loves them like family. National fans are like Grateful Dead fans. It's a whole community. I have a lot of respect for what they built.”
Perhaps this hints at the secrecy, what has held them together - the community they've built around fans who are tremendously loyal, and the way the Nationals consider themselves some of their biggest fans. This is less about ego and more about passion: they're making the music they want to hear.
“I think all the songs this band does together are still our favorite songs,” says Berninger. “The National is my favorite band.”
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