'Laugh Track' Is in the Centre of the National's Venn Diagram

BY Alex HudsonPublished Sep 18, 2023

Albums come in twos these days for Aaron Dessner. He produced and co-wrote most of Taylor Swift's 2020 double-header, and this year oversaw a similar two-part collaboration with Ed Sheeran. And so it's cosmically appropriate that he's now done the same thing with his main gig as a member of the National.

The National have always felt like a family unit — partly because there's two sets of brothers in the band, but mostly because they've never changed members in their career of over two decades, with none of the five standing out as having any particular star power on their own. Singer Matt Berninger is the focal point of their live shows, as tends to be the case with lead singers, but they've never been anything more than the sum of their parts.

It's a major shift in narrative, therefore, that one of the members now has his own draw as the go-to producer for some of the biggest pop artists in the world. Perhaps that was why this spring's First Two Pages of Frankenstein felt unsteady; pretty yet safe, full of mid-tempo acoustic numbers, straightforward rhythms that toned down drummer Bryan Davendorf's usual syncopated wizardry, and wordy tales of alienation that sounded an awful lot like what the National's songs are supposed to sound like.

It's hard to say exactly what's different here, since the 12 songs that make up Laugh Track apparently come from the same sessions as Frankenstein — but where the earlier album sounded meek, the follow-up finds the National easily sinking into what they do best. "Space Invader" and "Smoke Detector" are each seven-minute rockers, their expanse making room for some of the most raw, rollicking moments since the band's aughts breakout, while Phoebe Bridgers-aided title cut "Laugh Track" adds some levity to what initially seems like a plaintive ballad, with Berninger wryly musing, "Turn on the laugh track, we'll see if it changes the scene / Maybe this is just the funniest version of us we've ever been," like someone who just got done watching Everything Everywhere All at Once. "Weird Goodbyes," featuring Bon Iver, stands out far more here than it did upon its original release as a stand-alone single in 2022, its drum machine pulse nicely fulfilling the role of the National's one-per-album fun knee-slapper.

Songs initially present as ballads, gradually swelling with layers of percussion that reframe Berninger's gloomy turns of phrase as quietly comforting: lines about packing up and moving on "Turn Off the House" leave the impression of fresh beginnings rather than bitter ends. And in "Coat on a Hook," even as Berninger chronicles his sense of alienation while making small talk at a party, the gorgeously interlocking arpeggios seem to suggest: hey, at least he was invited to a party, so how bad could it be? 

If all of the National's albums were placed in a Venn diagram, Laugh Track would sit at the direct centre — neither expanding the sound à la the sweeping expanse of 2019's I Am Easy to Find, nor fully retreating to the straight-up indie rock of 2007's The Boxer. Crucially, it re-establishes them as a group of long-time collaborators in line with one another, none of them standing out from the others — not the lead singer, whose cryptically wistful turns of phrase largely serve the mood of the songs rather than standing out as clear narratives, and not even the superstar producer/multi-instrumentalist.

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