“More spontaneous, more collaborative,” is how Aaron Dessler describes the songs on The Nationals Surprise 10Th album Laugh track. Works just five months after the intelligent, supportive and slightly soporific remedy Two sides of Frankenstein, This is an album where some of its looser and happier songs seem to have emerged from soundcheck jams. “Maybe this is just the funniest version of us/we’ve ever been,” sing Matt Berninger and old bastard Phoebe Bridgers on the album’s title track.
Of course, even at their “funniest” The National won’t make wedding disco material. But they sound lighter and more flexible. Longtime fans of the thoughtful indie rockers will enjoy the restorative, rhythmic snap and flex that comes with the deep-rooted sadness that rises from the joints. I was reminded of an old relaxation exercise that asks you to imagine ball bearings settling on your hips and shoulders, and then imagine them rolling down your limbs, past your knees and elbows, and exiting your fingers and toes . It’s there in the flowing knuckles of the piano, the deep pocket of the drums.
This sudden belief in her intuition is reflected in the lyrics. Against the gentle synth shimmer of opener “Alphabet City,” Berninger sings, “Sometimes I wanna drive around and find you/ And act like it’s a random thing…” His belief in life’s larger safety net structure comes later, as he reassures his lover : “It’s all orchestrated, follow the arrows/ Let’s meet where we used to be in Alphabet City.”
The big drums pound in with “Deep End (Paul’s in Pieces)” and Bon Iver joins the band on the gentle ’80s drum machine pulse of “Weird Goodbyes.” The two men’s trembling voices combine and float over classic Berningerian lines of anxiety plagued by “dampness, history, chemistry and panic.” His deep, raspy vocals are like rusty pipes that capture the emotions on the way to being unleashed. It’s a song that puts you in a trance state and makes me wonder if “The National” could be modern America’s answer to the lo-fi sadness of “The Blue Nile.” Trembling drums repeatedly pull the rug out from under the comforting melody of “Turn off the House,” but a more stable accompaniment is offered by “Dreaming.” Berninger always sounds like a man singing with his palms up, searching for answers, and here there is no judgment in his steady realization: “You personalize everything/everyone’s feelings/it’s always all about you.” It sounds like he would sing about himself with weary compassion.
The Desslers’ guitars also sound a little deeper on this record. You let yourself sway to the melodies and lightly stroke your fingers over the strings in the rhythm of “Space Invader”. The easy swing leads into “Hornets,” while Berninger shrugs: “We always get stuck in the heavy shit… I don’t know if you’re coming back from your cigarette break.” They do some fingerpicking on “Coat on a Hook.” something pretty and in “Tour Manager” something spacious, where muted percussion and soft-sounding guitars contrast with a lyrical plea for calm. Roseanne Cash brings a weak vocal sway to the country twang of “Crumble,” and the album closes with the excellent 7.47-minute “Smoke Detector.” The line “Smoke detector/ All you need is to protect her” creates a track that has been burning at Berninger for years. As the guitar hook slowly sparkles and scorches, he murmurs on in a stream of deftly annoyed self-consciousness. He jumps into a snappier higher register and calms himself down: “I’ll get better, I’ll ruffle the feathers/I’ll punch in the numbers and type in the letters,” before neediness creeps in: “Why not? Are you lying here and listening to the distant sirens with me? You don’t know how much I love you, do you?”
It’s true that when listening to The National I often feel like I’m hearing ghosts of their previous songs. Old chords and thoughts haunt the halls of various songs. But it’s hard to resist their dazzling, shape-shifting camaraderie. And further Laugh track The spirits are more flexible and friendly than ever before.