First Two Pages Of Frankenstein
We are revisiting some of our favourite albums of 2023
“I was in a very dark spot where I couldn’t come up with lyrics or melodies at all, and that period lasted over a year” Matt Berninger, vocalist of The National, 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.” As you might have guessed, the Ohio quintet persevered through 12 months of frustration; rather than quarrelling and in-fighting they supported one another and created an environment that eventually spawned ‘First Two Pages of Frankenstein’, the outfit’s ninth LP. Mary Shelley’s classic piece of literature played a key part in unlocking Berninger’s fallow period of creativity. “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 ‘Your Mind Is Not Your Friend’” muses Berninger. “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.”
Disconnection and themes of fracturing relationships populate ‘First Two Pages of Frankenstein’s 11 tracks, which is particularly apt given the record’s difficult gestation period. The album’s narrative presented itself to Berninger in a kind of Trojan Horse way “I didn’t even realise 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” reflects the group’s frontman. Suffice to say, the five piece’s latest offering is a melancholic affair, one that’s brittle in its aural subtlety and raw in its confessional stance. Lyrically and vocally Berninger cuts a vulnerable figure, one that almost seems to have surrendered to inevitable heartbreak. Although, there’s a calmness to the vocalist’s demeanour, despite the sorrow that cloaks the capitulation of a loving relationship. ‘First Two Pages of Frankenstein’ plays out like an elongated, intimate diary entry that recounts an amicable break-up. ‘Once Upon a Poolside’ (featuring Sufjan Stevens) finds Berninger realising a relationship is soon to run its course “this is the closest we’ve ever been/and I had no idea what’s happening/is this how this whole thing is gonna end?” purrs The National’s enigmatic frontman. ‘Eucalyptus’ finds the listener as a fly on the wall as a couple divide up all their stuff “you should take it/’cause I’m not gonna take it/you should take it/I’m only gonna break it”. ‘New Order T-Shirt’ has Berninger focusing his attention away from material possessions as he ponders the real items he’ll miss “I keep what I can of you/split second glimpses/and snapshots/and sounds/holding a cat and a glass of beer.”
During the record’s midsection, ‘First Two Pages of Frankenstein’ takes you on a low-key emotional rollercoaster as our suitor reminisces on what could have been and in most cases, the reasons the relationship existed in the first place. ‘This Isn’t Helping’ (featuring Phoebe Bridgers) has Berninger pondering “maybe in time we can give it one more try”. While ‘The Alcott’ (featuring Taylor Swift) is a bruised back and forth between two individuals that were once deeply in love. It’s a stunningly stark affair that’s accompanied by big piano tones and heartbeat thumps. Berninger and Swift trade missives like “give me some tips to forget you” and “I’ll ruin it all over” before concluding “I think I’m falling back in love with you” in a lush harmony of their conjoined vocals. Clearly something was sparked during ‘The Alcott’s open and honest exchange as follow-on track ‘Grease in your Hair’ slightly swerves away from the shadows of melancholy for something altogether bolder and less forlorn. Even Berninger acknowledges the shift in atmosphere has produced some magic in the air “we’re in the middle of some kind of cosmic arrangement”. In a full circle moment, the song that sowed that first seed ‘Your Mind Is Not Your Friend’ (featuring Phoebe Bridgers) charters the challenging avenues our thoughts can go down when we’re not at our best. With twinkling piano and a faint hum, Berninger and Bridgers plaintively declare “don’t you understand/your mind is not your friend again/it takes you by the hand/and leads you nowhere”. ‘First Two Pages of Frankenstein’ is closed off by the delicate, woozy hue of ‘Send For Me’. If the album began with the realisation that something has reached its natural conclusion, the record’s final breath is where a flicker of hope starts to slowly reignite “send for me/whenever/wherever/send for me/I’ll come and getcha”.
We should all think ourselves lucky The National didn’t call it a day when they hit that creative break wall. ‘First Two Pages of Frankenstein’ is an album of low-key brilliance, one that doesn’t immediately vie for your attention but will seduce you with its emotional subtlety. A delicate masterpiece.
Pre-order First Two Pages of Frankenstein by The National HERE
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