The National Battles Back With Ninth Album, ‘First Two Pages of Frankenstein’: ‘We Needed to Lose Each Other and Find One Another Again’
Matt Berninger felt paralyzed. The 52-year-old frontman for the National, one of the most enduring and influential indie rock bands of the 21st century, was battling a devastating bout of depression and writer’s block. “I didn’t want to write, didn’t want to do anything,” Berninger says over a Zoom call. “But the longer I didn’t [write], the harder it was to connect back to it… I hated everything I’d written; I hated the idea of trying to finish that thought.” As his problems persisted, they fueled a cycle of self-loathing that called into question Berninger’s entire persona. “I also had the sense of, have I turned myself into this misanthropic cliché that our music projects sometimes? I was a little self-disgusted.”
Berninger’s personal struggles precipitated perhaps the band’s most difficult stretch ever. By their own admission, there was considerable doubt as to whether they would ever release another record. Ultimately, though, the National found its way back: “First Two Pages of Frankenstein,” the band’s ninth studio album, finds the band frequently rejuvenated, with Berninger’s writing sharp, textured and poignant.
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But the album’s gestation was tortured. “It became apparent that Matt was struggling to write lyrics, and then it became apparent that it was more than that, where he was struggling generally,” says Bryce Dessner, who masterminds the band’s singular orchestral arrangements. Berninger says that no matter how good the band’s instrumental sketches were, he couldn’t figure out what to do with them. “I described it as feeling nauseous and somebody’s giving you the most delicious homemade apple pie.”
While most of the remedies Berninger attempted proved ineffectual (“I quit antidepressants and went back to weed and wine, and that actually helped a little bit”), it was the band’s support that helped him regain a sense of normalcy. “I’ve often been one of the people trying to help people out of those stuck places,” he says. “For example, Aaron [Dessner], back when we made ‘Boxer,’ was in a really similar place that I found myself in for lots of different reason. I remember helping him get out of that, and this time it was the reverse.”
The Dessners convened a handful of studio sessions with Berninger, understanding that he didn’t have lyrics or melodies to bring to the table, but with the intent of helping him creatively thaw. “We were doing that as friends, not as bandmates – as family, really,” Bryce says. Adds Aaron, “It was an incredibly natural thing to circle the wagons around him. I think what’s really what really helped, was to have faith that even in not knowing what these songs were, not knowing what he wanted to say, that there’s still some sort of humanity and beauty in the not knowing.”
A few songs helped Berninger find his footing as a writer again, including “Weird Goodbyes” and “Once Upon a Poolside” (the former, featuring Bon Iver, is not included in the tracklist but was released as a single last year). Most significant in turning the tide, though, was “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend”; its titular phrase was something Carin Besser, Berninger’s wife and frequent writing partner, had said to try to lure him out of depression, so it was fitting that it would anchor the song that snapped him out of his stasis. “I had this beautiful music that I just couldn’t do anything to,” Berninger says. Attempting to brainstorm, he grabbed a copy of “Frankenstein” off the shelf and found instant inspiration. “I was able to write about all the weird depression and that weird place where your brain is. The icy frozen tundra where the beginning of ‘Frankenstein’ happens fit where I was mentally…That song was essential to get that off my shoulders in a way I’m not embarrassed by, and then I could start writing about other things again.”
And then the songs came quickly. “You can feel it in the album,” Bryce says. “For us it’s quite poetic, actually, that feeling of going from a confused mind or a cloudy day to the sky parting.” Berninger says the band’s bond was stronger than ever once the contours of the album began to take shape: “There wasn’t any creative conflict, we were all just so excited by the songs and happy that it was working again… The music that those guys were sending me… worked way better than any other techniques of solving my depression. The music really got me out of it.”
As they started assembling the songs, the band developed an itch to recruit outside collaborators. “Frankenstein” features Sufjan Stevens (a close friend and frequent collaborator), Phoebe Bridgers (on two songs) and Taylor Swift, whose 2020 albums “Folklore” and “Evermore” were co-produced by Aaron Dessner. “We were just sharing songs with our friends and the writers that we are jealous of and respect the most,” Berninger says.
“Phoebe is maybe one of the best lyricists ever, you know?” he continues. “And then Taylor, the best songwriter of our time. Aaron shared ‘The Alcott’ with her and she wrote a whole different perspective to a song that I’d written about my wife… and there were two sides of the story, suddenly.” Aaron says Swift’s ability to flesh out the emotion in his music grants their partnership a unique synergy. “Collaboration is… taking a risk and sharing ideas with someone and hoping that they’ll receive them and share back with you. The alchemy, chemistry between people artistically can make you more than you could be on your own. And in Taylor’s case… I’ve always written music that I felt like it was about something even before I knew what it was about… When Taylor heard sketches that I was working on, she heard stories and she was able to tell those stories.”
Though said guests dip in and out of focus, the spotlight remains fixed on Berninger, who channels his struggles into some beautifully specific, observational songwriting. With “New Order T-Shirt,” Berninger sees fleeting memories as a continual source of comfort: “I keep what I can of you, split-second glimpses and snapshots and sounds…I carry them with me like drugs in a pocket,” he sings.
“Most of us just have these little jewels in our pocket,” he says, “these little moments that we hang, this little candy necklace of our favorite memories. I wanted to put some of those together, those bits and pieces. It’s not a narrative, it’s just these little Polaroids of scattered memories.” Aaron sees “New Order T-Shirt” as indicative of a new chapter. “What Matt is singing about, this incredibly relatable but also sort of weirdly elusive emotional idea… to me symbolizes this incredible joy and sorrow of life… Something about that makes me think the National is meant to keep making songs. It feels related to what we’ve done in the past, but it feels like some very evolved version.”
Much of the album is considerably darker. Although “Tropic Morning News” has a buoyant energy, Berninger laments our tendency to get lost in the bleakest news that clouds our social media timeline. “Eucalyptus” is a darkly funny look at the tedious logistics of dissolving a relationship. “I write about things that I’m afraid might happen,” he says. “Whether it’s the breakup of the band, or my marriage, I think those things are always better off if you look over the edge and say, ‘Oh yeah, this is the edge, and I don’t want to get any further.’ … I like writing songs about things falling apart.”
“Frankenstein” arrives following a lengthy hiatus in part because the band was busy with side projects, including Berninger’s first solo album, Aaron’s production work, and Big Red Machine, a collaboration between Aaron and Justin Vernon. Bryce has been particularly prolific, increasing his output as a film composer; most recently, he worked on Alejandro Iñárritu’s “Bardo” and Mike Mills’ “C’mon, C’mon.” “Each film might be like an album,” Bryce says. “It brings its own set of challenges, its own sonic language… Part of it is really getting to know a director and trying to get inside what’s in their mind. Mike and Alejandro are both very musical people… It’s fun and challenging to find a new palette for each film.”
But the partnership binding the National remains important to all of them. Next month brings the tenth anniversary of the band’s sixth album, “Trouble Will Find Me,” a chapter the band recalls fondly. Berninger says that, fresh off of “High Violet’s” success, the band’s confidence was at an all-time high – a notable contrast to the fraught “Frankenstein” recording sessions. Bryce sees the album as an important moment and identifies the album’s closer, “Hard to Find,” as his favorite song he’s written with the National. “I know for my brother and I, ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ and ‘Boxer’ and I think this record feel like where we got closest to what we were really dreaming and imagining creatively. ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ is a creative high point for the band.”
“Frankenstein’s” final song, “Send for Me,” ends the album on an unexpectedly optimistic note. “It felt like one of the kindest songs I have ever written, and I was writing it to myself,” Matt says. “I was writing it in a way to my daughter but also because I was feeling like I wished somebody would come get me out of this.” Through his family and friends, Berninger found exactly what he was looking for. “I think he needed to go through that,” Bryce says. “I think we needed to go through that. We needed to lose each other and come back around and find one another again, and we did.”
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