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Friday, May 5, 2023

The National Continues to Push the Envelope

Written by Jon Williams

Last week the indie rock band the National thrilled fans worldwide with the release of their ninth full-length album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein. The title was created by frontman Matt Berninger. Struggling to write lyrics for a new album, he turned to his bookshelf for inspiration and found a handful of words and phrases that spoke to him in Mary Shelley’s classic novel. It was the breakthrough he needed. The result is an 11-track disc that features contributions from Sufjan Stevens, Phoebe Bridgers, and Taylor Swift.
Although the members (Berninger [vocals], brothers Scott [bass] and Bryan Devendorf [drums], and twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner [guitar/piano]) all grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, the band formed in Brooklyn in 1999. They released two albums (The National and Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers) and an EP (Cherry Tree) as they honed their craft and refined their sound.
After signing with Beggars Banquet Records in 2004, the National hit their stride. In 2005, Alligator raised their profile by appearing on several publications’ lists of albums of the year (and eventually the decade). They saw similar critical acclaim from the breakout album Boxer in 2007, and skyrocketed into the public consciousness when an instrumental version of “Fake Empire” was used in Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for the presidency. They followed that up in 2010 with High Violet, and their tour in support of that album was chronicled in the 2013 documentary Mistaken for Strangers (currently unavailable) made by Tom Berninger, Matt’s brother.
Now bona fide indie darlings, their music began to show up in more and more places, including over the closing credits of an episode of Game of Thrones, the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack, and on The Bob’s Burgers Music Album. They scored their first Grammy nomination for 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, and won Best Alternative Music Album for the 2017 follow-up, Sleep Well Beast. Then, instead of taking a break as they had planned, they came back quickly, in 2019, with I Am Easy to Find, a collaboration with director Mike Mills, who used the album’s soundscape as the background for a short film of the same name.
The band hasn’t been idle since. They wrote the music for the 2021 film Cyrano, which features their single “Somebody Desperate.” They’ve also kept busy individually with side projects, some of which have been quite notable. In 2020 Matt Berninger released a solo album, Serpentine Prison. Aaron’s high-profile projects included cowriting and coproducing Taylor Swift’s Grammy-winning album folklore and its follow-up, evermore (which featured the National on the track “Coney Island”), as well as Ed Sheeran’s latest, among several others. He also recorded an album (also featuring a Taylor Swift appearance) with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon as Big Red Machine, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?
And we may hear more from the National as they kick off a world tour this month. Members of the band have said they wrote a lot of good songs that didn’t make the new album, and hinted that it may be released soon in some form. In the meantime, fans new and old have plenty of music to dig into. Click the links above for their albums, or SmartBrowse on our website for more.

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