On Monday morning The National surprise-released a new record, Laugh Track, as a companion to First Two Pages of Frankenstein, a record that came out less than six months ago. The songs featured on the former came to fruition in the same writing sessions as the latter, but the band claims that the songs on Laugh Track were written as a means of providing drummer Bryan Devendorf with pieces where his “playing would drive more.”
This is presumably in reference to the band’s glitch-laden experiments of the past half-decade, which often resulted in Devendorf’s incredible drumming giving way to machine percussion. (Astylistic choice that served the band well on their very good 2017 record, Sleep Well Beast.) So the intention is there. But are the songs? Sometimes. Laugh Track, and Frankenstein, for that matter, aren’t devoid of highlights, but find themselves bogged down by tracks that are ultimately destined to be lost in a massive discography packed with some of the best work of any band this century.
Laugh Track’s highlight comes at its close, with the 8-minute guitar fireworks of “Smoke Detector,” a display of a sound that the Dessner brothers have mastered in the National’s must-see live shows. Fitting, given that the recording originated from a soundcheck. It’s the best song on either 2023 album.
The band stated that the record was meant to provide a home for “Weird Goodbyes,” a Bon Iver collaboration, and it’s safe to say that home probably didn’t need to come in the form of an hour- long mansion. A five-song apartment would have sufficed.
With this year’s two releases and 2019’s 16-song I Am Easy To Find, the National have spent a lot of time on a lot of music that doesn’t reach the peaks they’ve reached before. And the songs that do are the ones where the whole band is firing on all cylinders, as they have throughout their whole career. Think “Rylan,” and “You Had Your Soul With You,” or Laugh Track’s “Turn off the House” or “Smoke Detector.”
It’s unrealistic to ask bands and artists to spend their careers retreading their best work. The National’s run from 2005-13 was unmatched by just about any band. Then after a four-year hiatus they returned with an excellent and very different record that won them a Grammy in Sleep Well Beast. And now, in an attempt to avoid the pigeonhole they seem to believe they created with that album, they’ve emerged with two records in six months, the latest one is very different from the exciting directions they’ve gone previously.
Order Laugh Track by The National HERE
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