While the band has not released anything since 2019’s I Am Easy to Find, members of The National have been busy with solo albums and working extensively with other artists. Anytime the band gets back together is a reason for high anticipation. And so arrives First Two Pages of Frankenstein with much talk about the writers block that singer Matt Berninger suffered through during the process.
Like their younger colleagues, this time around The National brings in a slew of guest vocalists including Sufjan Stevens, Phoebe Bridgers, and world conquering Tayler Swift. Stevens helps on the minimal album opener, “Once Upon a Poolside” but neither Bridgers tracks really hit. Swift’s appearance is more memorable as she sings lines back to Berninger and adds her own style on lines like “The last thing you wanted/It’s the first thing I do”.
When it’s just Berninger, the songs tend to lean heavily on relationships moments. “Eucalyptus” sees a couple splitting up their possessions during a break-up including the records. “New Order T-Shirt” has a cascading beat laying the bed for “split second glimpses and snapshots and sounds”. This new release sees the band quiet and introspective, what’s missed is the band rocking out especially when they have a stellar rhythm section of brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf. They are only truly unleashed on “Tropic Morning News”. Instead, the band opts for electronics that all start to blend into one another as the album continues.
For her ninth studio album, Did You Know There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, Lana Del Rey enlists a slew of co-producers and collaborators. Clocking in at a Metallica like 77 minutes, the 16 songs average close to 5 minutes in length. Second single “A&W” uses pulses for beats on a track that stands for American Whore. Not the easiest listen where Lana sings “It’s not about havin’ someone to love me anymore” and later “I’m invisible, I’m invisible”. The song then ups the beats and segues into “jimmy jimmy cocoa puff”. Lana uses a similar trick later on album closer “Taco Truck x VB” that adds demo version verses from earlier single “Venice Bitch”.
The album is dominated by slower songs like the muffled drumbeat of the title track. “Candy Necklace” sees Lana mumbling over a piano bed. The songs on the second half of the album vary a bit more such as the atmospheric “Paris, Texas” that sees Lana’s voice rise and fall with the piano. “Grandfather Please Stand on the Shoulders of My Father While He’s Deep Sea Fishing” is a touching, personal moment about family. Father John Misty appears as a paramour on “Let the Light In” before Canadian rapper Tommy Genesis provides a bounce as she raps “hands on your knees/I’m Angelina Jolie” on the relatively energetic “Peppers”.
With 16 songs to make it through, Did You Know is a long listen. Many tracks are minimal, with a small number of memorable moments. The album includes two lengthy interludes, the first from celebrity pastor Judah Smith and the second from Grammy winner Jon Batiste that sounds like they were having fun. The minimal approach may have worked better on a shorter album but here, it contains several skippable moments.
It all starts with a guitar riff then 80s styled synths pop into the mix on “Grand Junction”. A song about a couple driving out west where the girl is scared then amazed by the size of the sky. Singer Craig Finn tackles other relationships on The Hold Steady’s ninth studio album, The Price of Progress. “Perdido” captures a break up while on vacations. “Says she’s got a couple lovers, yeah, you’re not the only one/You’re just the only one that wants to spend the week with me.”
The boys are having a crisis after softball on “Carlos is Crying” where Carlos has not told his girlfriend he has not worked in weeks. “Flyover Halftime” has a significant pregaming session before one of the boys runs on the field. At times, the stories and songs are not that significant, “City at Eleven” doesn’t leave much of an impression. But on The Price of Progress, the band cranks out several middle aged delights that a lot of us can relate to.
Nearly 20 years ago The National released their second album, Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers. It was their first time working with co-producer Peter Katis who would produce their next two discs and the first to include Bryce Dessner as a full member. The band grows their sound from the first release with chiming guitars on “Slipping Husband” and halfway through “90-Mile Water Wall” where the song changes direction with an extended instrumental passage.
Matt Berninger is still trying to find his voice on many wordy songs. “Available” has an anthemic feel that Berninger struggles to keep up with. Better are the tracks where he takes a more minimalist approach such as the guitar driven “Murder Me Rachael” and the lyrically simpler “Sugar Wife”. The album closes with the country tinged “Lucky You”. Like the first album, this has the sound of the city’s best bar band who would have been blinding to have stumbled across across one night.
In 2021 Damon Albarn released a very good solo album, blur has recently announced live shows so a new Gorillaz album was next on the to do list. Working with all star producer Greg Kurstin, the clubby synth stabs of the title track announce the beginning of the journey along with Thundercat. This is quickly followed up with one of the album highlights, the Stevie Nicks collaboration of “Oil”. Albarn’s treated vocals are underpinned with the deeper Nicks. A strident beat delivers the line, “individual actions change the world/fill them up with love”.
Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker along with Bootie Brown bring a classic Gorillaz sound to “New Gold” before Albarn takes over on the underwater dreaminess of “Tarantula”. Where Cracker Island lags is on a couple midtempo tracks. An acoustic introduction is teased on “Skinny Ape” before it gets replaced by blips and bloops. An acoustic track would have been a welcome respite from the processed beats. Cracker Island leaves the listener with a few good tracks and other missed opportunities.