“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings,” reads the first letter exchanged in Mary Shelley’s epistolary novel, Frankenstein. The letter comes from Captain Robert Walton as he begins to traverse the North Pole in hopes of a grand scientific discovery; a few correspondences later, Walton encounters a frozen Victor Frankenstein, whose own experimental aspirations led him to isolation. When Frankenstein recovers, he cautions Walton to do everything in his power to avoid a similar fate.
“Your imagination is in an awful place/ Don’t believe in manifestation, your heart’ll break,” warns Matt Berninger on “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend,” a highlight from The National’s new album First Two Pages of Frankenstein, out April 28th. Like Victor Frankenstein, Berninger’s narrator often speaks as though he’s just come out on the other side of near-tragedy; he’s well again, but the effects of being frozen linger: “If you’re ever in a psychiatric greenhouse/ With slip-on shoes/ Wipe a smile on the shatterproof windows/ I’ll know what to do,” he sings.
Berninger picked up Shelley’s Frankenstein in a bout of writer’s block after The National released their 2019 album I Am Easy to Find, and was immediately moved by his and the protagonist’s shared experiences of feeling “disconnected and lost and lacking in purpose.” Like a classic novel, much of Berninger’s words chart similar territory: He worries about the future of his cherished relationships. He feels like a kid when the world around him gets hard. In his words, he “stares into the abyss.”
Keeping in line with its initial inspiration source material, a lot of First Two Pages feels foreboding, and Berninger often writes as though the rug could be pulled out from under him at any moment. On the booming ballad “Eucalyptus,” he anticipates what would happen if even the things most certain to him – like his 20-year marriage – were to crumble. His anxiety is palpable; the song doesn’t just brace for heartbreak, but frantically explores all the minutiae of splitting up: Who gets the TV? Would starting fresh in a new city fill in the faultlines? How does one even begin to split up a Christmas ornament collection?
The primary songwriters of The National – Berninger, Aaron Dessner, and Bryce Dessner – are fond of literary references, and their bookishness is evident as ever on First Two Pages. The sparkling “New Order T-Shirt” smartly uses on-the-nose references to capture fading moments in time: “I keep what I can of you /Split-second glimpses and snapshots and sounds,” Berninger sings, rattling off anecdotes of an East Village cafe, a Hawaiian airport, an aquarium in Kentucky – memories he holds on to “like drugs in a pocket” – like there’s something taboo and discreet about them. It doesn’t feel like a long-winded, you-had-to-be-there story, but an exercise on the memories we choose to keep.
Notably, First Two Pages also features some of the first big-name collaborations to appear on a National record: Sufjan Stevens, Phoebe Bridgers, and Taylor Swift, all of whom are widely regarded as some of the best songwriters in their class. Their impact is felt subtly – Bridgers airy vocals contrast with Berninger’s booming baritone, complementing each other more than overpowering.
And although it’s an ultimately smart creative decision to cast their guests more in the background, the main faults with First Two Pages are that it perhaps feels too familiar. There’s likely a good reason for that: “This was the first time it ever felt like maybe things really had come to an end,” Berninger recalls, and he admits that he’s written about everything he mentions on First Two Pages.
There are glimmers of previous eras of The National here – the choppy electronica of Sleep Well Beast, the rollicking percussion of I Am Easy to Find – but here, they retreat and lean on what they know best: Inoffensive, subdued, boilerplate indie rock. By a lesser band, it’d be ultimately forgettable, a pejorative that has plagued The National – often unfairly – since their inception. Regardless, they’ve always executed that schtick well, but now with nine albums to their name, at what point does consistency slip into tedium? Here, “playing it safe” nearly becomes a risky practice in itself.
Shelley’s Frankenstein has served as a blueprint for countless adaptations into film, television, and other derivative works; it, too, could be considered “safe” territory now, two centuries later. But it was once groundbreaking, and The National once felt brand new, too. First Two Pages of Frankenstein is by no means subversive – but it’s worth at least keeping on the bookshelf for whenever you, too, feel lost.