This week’s ALT 104.5 New Music Discovery Of The Week is “Tropic Morning News” by The National
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For more than two decades, The National have offered up songs that mine immense beauty from damage and pain, a direct reflection of their shared belief in music’s capacity to catalyze transcendence. “As a band we’ve always talked about how we only want to make records if we feel like we’re still learning something about ourselves and each other, and if the music itself shines some sort of light in the darkness,” notes lead singer Matt Berninger.
While that sense of devotion has led to extraordinary success—including winning a GRAMMY Awards® for Best Alternative Music Album (for 2017’s Sleep Well Beast), headlining festivals around the world, and working with countless culture-defining artists across all media—the Ohio-bred band found themselves faced with a creative crisis in the writing of their ninth studio album. “I was in a very dark spot where I couldn’t come up with lyrics or melodies at all, and that period lasted for over a year,” Berninger recalls.“Even though we’d always been anxious and argued quite a lot whenever we were working on a record, this was the first time it ever felt like maybe things really had come to an end.”
The band decided not to worry so much about the record and instead focused their attention on their friendship and transforming the longstanding tensions within their musical partnership, consciously treating each other with a new level of grace—a shift that indelibly informed the making of their new album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein. “At some point there was a feeling o fall of us leaning into each other in a new way that ultimately allowed everyone to do what they do best,” says guitarist/pianist/bassist Aaron Dessner, whose bandmates also include his brother Bryce Dessner (guitar, piano, orchestration)as well as brothers Scott Devendorf (bass, guitar) and Bryan Devendorf (drums). “Instead of fighting, we were caring for each other and for the songs, almost like you’d care for your family,” Bryce adds. “We managed to come back together and approach everything from a different angle, and because of that we arrived at what feels like a new place.”
Produced by The National and mainly recorded at Long Pond Studio (their Hudson Valley home base),First Two Pages of Frankenstein channels that revitalized chemistry into a body of work that beautifully balances the band’s elegant musicality with their more idiosyncratic impulses. “To me the power of this record has to do with the intentionality and structure of the music meeting with a lot of accidental magic,” says Aaron. “In certain songs you’ll hear slivers of improvisation that are coloring in the edges rather than playing a coherent part, which works well with Bryce’s orchestral arrangements or the linear way that Bryan plays drums. It’s like we’re building a whole sculptural world with the songs.”
Featuring a stacked lineup of guest musicians (including Taylor Swift, Phoebe Bridgers, Sufjan Stevens),First Two Pages of Frankenstein also finds each member tapping into the eclectic sensibilities explored in projects outside the band. “Partly because of the different experiences we’ve all had and brought back to the band, and the confidence that comes with that, we felt very capable of realizing our ideas as best as we could,” says Bryce. “And even when we strayed from the initial idea, we kept dreaming and moving things forward in a very intentional way.”
The follow-up to I Am Easy to Find (a 2019 release accompanied by a short film from director Mike Mills),First Two Pages of Frankenstein derives its title from a moment deep in Berninger’s bout with writer’s block. “When I feel stuck I’ll often grab a book off the shelf just to get some words in my head, and the first two pages of Frankenstein ended up triggering the song ‘Your Mind Is Not Your Friend,’” he says, referring to one of the album’s most bracingly introspective tracks. “The book starts off with the narrator on a voyage near the Arctic Circle, and that image of being adrift helped me to write about feeling disconnected and lost and lacking in purpose. Once I started confronting that strange, blurry panic of not having ideas, everything began to crack open a bit.”
Although the early stages of the album-making process mostly involved remote collaboration, Berninger’s songwriting took on an entirely new momentum after The National returned to the road in summer 2022. “When we finally came back together on tour, Matt started writing songs in a very rapid-fire way almost overnight—these full-hearted, fully formed songs were just pouring out,” says Bryce. Their collective creative energy was so potent, in fact, that the band soon began experimenting with recording new material live onstage. “With the songs that came toward the end, you can really hear the full force of the band, along with an ‘Oh, thank God’ kind of feeling that we were all maybe experiencing at the time,” says Aaron. “It gives the songs a certain hopefulness, even though there’s still a lot of darkness and intensity to the record.”
After opening on the piano-led lament of “Once Upon a Poolside, ”First Two Pages of Frankenstein launches into the last song written for the album, the sublimely punchy “Eucalyptus.” One of several tracks adorned with a gracefully frenetic guitar solo, “Eucalyptus” came to life in a burst of charmed spontaneity during a tour stop at the legendary Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. “I’d sent that song to Matt so long ago I’d forgotten about it, but he’d come up with lyrics and asked me to play it as we were sound-checking,” says Bryce. “We rehearsed it twice without ever having had a demo and played it to the audience that night, and what you hear on the album was partially recorded during that rehearsal. It’s got this raw, immediate feeling, and it made sense to leave the rough edges instead of trying to perfect them.”
Like many songs on First Two Pages of Frankenstein, “Eucalyptus” finds Berninger drawing lyrical inspiration from the once-tenuous state of The National and delving into the labyrinthine theme off ractured relationships. “Throughout the record there’s a lot of looking into the abyss and wondering if a relationship has run its course,” he says. “‘Eucalyptus’ is about a couple splitting up their possessions after a breakup—like, ‘What are we going to do with the spring water we get delivered, what’s going to happen to all these plants?’ It’s about all those little things you end up having to think about when you’ve become so connected to someone.”
Partly recorded live onstage in Hamburg, the deceptively upbeat “Tropic Morning News” merges its mercurial textures and kinetic rhythms with a lush yet subtle grandeur achieved through Bryce’s work with the London Contemporary Orchestra’s string section. “When Matt came in with that song in the depths of his depression, it felt like a turning point for us,” says Aaron. “It’s almost Dylan-esque in its lyrics and it’s so much fun to play; everything suddenly felt like it was coming alive again.” Co-written with Berninger’s wife Carin Besser, “Tropic Morning News” takes its title from a phrase Besser invented to describe the regrettably routine practice of doom scrolling. “The idea of referring to the darkness of the news in such alight way unlocked something in me,” says Berninger. “It became a song about having a hard time expressing yourself, and trying to connect with someone when the noise of the world is drowning out any potential for conversation.”
In its layered meditation on the rupturing of connection, First Two Pages of Frankenstein drifts into a mood of lovely nostalgia on “New Order T-Shirt”—a warmly hypnotic track that shifts between brightly detailed memory and heavy-hearted resolution (from the first verse: “How we wove through the cones walking home/To the place on Atlantic you shared with your hilarious sister/Kicking off your black flats, demolished and laughing/I keep what I can of you”). “To me the line ‘I keep what I can of you’ means something about everyone I’ve ever known or loved,” Aaron points out. “There’s a simplicity to that song that reminds me of our earlier records, but with the full maturity and experience we have now. It feels like a really important song for the future of our band.”
One of the most cinematic and narratively driven moments on First Two Pages of Frankenstein, “The Alcott” takes the form of a pensive yet luminous duet between Berninger and Swift. “Matt wrote the main part of the song to some music I had written which Taylor had heard and I knew liked, so I thought it might be something she would really click with,” says Aaron. “I sent it to her, and was a little nervous as I didn't hear back for 20 minutes or so. By the time she responded, Taylor had written all her parts and recorded a voice memo with the lyrics she’d added in a dialogue with Matt, and everyone fell immediately in love with it. It felt meant to be." Set to a gorgeously sparse backdrop of piano and strings, “The Alcott” finds Berninger and Swift inhabiting the roles of a couple attempting to resurrect a troubled relationship, forging a finely drawn story nearly novelistic in scope. “It’s about two people with a long history returning to a place and trying to relive a certain moment in time,” says Berninger. “It’s got the feeling of a last-ditch effort to hold onto the relationship, but there’s a hint of something positive where you can see the beginnings of a reconnection.”
With the album-closing “Send For Me,” First Two Pages of Frankenstein ends on an ineffably hopeful note, one that surprised the band itself. “I didn’t even realize it as we were making it, but the record does follow a sort of journey that has to do with letting go of attachment and then coming back to it in a stronger way,” says Bryce. Referring to “Send For Me” as “one of the most unconditionally positive songs I’ve ever written,” Berninger partly credits his bandmates with helping him to approach his songwriting from an unexpected and undeniably welcome perspective. “Almost everything I’m writing about on this record, I’ve written about in the past,” he says. “I went through a long phase of feeling like I didn’t want to add to that story. I didn’t think I had anything new or enlightening to share, but it was the other guys who encouraged me to keep digging into it. Once we got together in a room, and listened to the songs we were making, we all realized, “Oh, no, this stuff is all worth talking about.”