Much like reading just the first two pages of Frankenstein, diving into The National’s latest album without the knowledge of what precedes it is ill-advised. Read beyond. Push through and learn. Or at least, do that for the Mary Shelley classic. For The National, who are now a dad-core boomer band in all the stereotypical maintenance that comes from such a slap-dash tag, First Two Pages of Frankenstein is a hollow shell of rocking out with famous names. Phoebe Bridgers, Taylor Swift and Sufjan Stevens bring the big guns in and around the time of their own releases but feel like spare parts on a Matt Berninger dominated by glum lyrics and poorly formed intentions.
Even as those spare parts, like driftwood chipped off of some woodworm-infested ship, are shuffled around this eleven-track album, they provide the best pieces. Pulling away and making The National a backing band, Stevens and Bridgers’ double appearance are delicate if clunky numbers. Once Upon A Poolside could be a Stevens song, The Alcott a Swift song had Jack Antanoff drowned out promise with production. The National, for all its longevity, do not find its own voice in the moments it matters on First Two Pages of Frankenstein. They are reminiscent of their collaborators, who have achieved far better listening experiences than the tracks they appear on here, than the album they are featured in from The National. Expressionless indie waste soon follows on those independently directed tracks.
Eucalyptus is a dreary little number, a Bono-sounding emptiness echoes through with Berninger appearing to think of himself as spokesman for the masses rather than competent lyricist. He is neither now. Relegating Bridgers’ efforts on This Isn’t Helping is predicted by the title. Nothing seems to be working for The National, who find themselves contending more and more with their inability to connect. Chamber-like inflictions are gutless and simple song titles mean The National are, indeed, an Alien to those who thought they knew the band. Berninger’s fascination with the spoken word potential is a disastrous change in pace, not one the band appears up for at all. Yet here he is, persevering and trying, desperately, to change direction. Reading the room is hard when The National have been out of it for so long, their glory days and pole position behind them.
Attempting to capture that once more, in the hopes of reliving those finer days of competent creation, is a fool’s endeavour. Berninger and company must know that, yet part of it is endearing to see them strive for it regardless. First Two Pages of Frankenstein is as dead as the monster without any charge. Weightless legacy creations that see pop value added with sprinklings of collaborations from artists that appear to be serving some sort of musical jury service. Striking through with a consistent and unmoving tone, The National provide an example of how strings cannot be thrown under the wheels of a mediocre album as a way of fixing punctures. From the forgettable workings of The Alcott to the lifeless Grease in Your Hair, which presents the idea of a genuine speech. For Berninger, the implication and the implementation of an idea are the same thing. For listeners, it is not.