If you were to glance through the list of featured artists woven through The National’s new album First Two Pages of Frankenstein it would read as the who’s who of indie pop music. For a very specific sub-section of annoying people (term used lovingly,) Phoebe Bridgers, Taylor Swift and Sufjan Stevens are the Mount Rushmore of a essayistic, melodramatic song writing.
The National are an indie rock band that capitalised on the garage, indie rock revival of the early 2000s. They functioned as the shyer, more observant cousin to The Strokes, (who rose to prominence at around the same time.) Floating around you before building in an overwhelming, incandescent haze—their music is an intoxicating blur of analogy and raw emotion. But their success isn’t limited to the scope of the band, in fact The National are proof that creative progress is often born in the work behind the scenes.
Each member of The National can be attributed to work outside of the band, letting their creative roots spread out, expanding their area of influence. This practice has seen the establishment of new bands, as Scott and Bryan Devendorf with their project LNZNDRF. But perhaps the most famous example of their extra-band work comes in Aaron Dessner’s song writing for other highly visible artists.
Folklore was Taylor Swift’s follow up album to her bedazzled, pre-pandemic offering: Lover. The disparity between these two album’s sounds is stark in a way that feels singular to Swift’s career, this shift will likely never be mimicked in her work again; Folklore was as stripped down and insular as Lover was extravagant and indulgent. While the pandemic likely has something to do with encouraging artists to wander along mental terrain, Aaron Dessner’s more reserved, thoughtful writing practices also had a distinct impact on Swift’s shift.
Dessner is not responsible for this phase of her creative career, but their collaboration has left an indelible mark on both party’s output. First Two Pages of Frankenstein is carried by The National’s characteristic moody restraint but it is also coloured by a more elaborate sound design, a layered sound that reflects the poppier instincts of their latest collaboration.
It is also hard to avoid filtering this music through Aaron and Bryce Dessner other major non-National pursuit. The brothers wrote the score for Joe Wright’s Cyrano, a grand, tragic musical charting unrequited love and loss. Their score uses the delicate piano, sweeping strings and simple lyrics to channel such big emotions. ‘Once Upon a Poolside’ is the opening track of their new record, and successfully achieves a similar balancing act—using background choral singers alongside relatively simple sentiments to overwhelm the listener, letting them sink beneath a wave of feeling.
First Two Pages of Frankenstein feels like the accomplishment of creatives who have been sharpening their skills independently. With this album The National reminds musicians that it is necessary to let your creative eye wander, exploring the many facets of the medium you hope to succeed in.