Laugh Track (The National) – music review

I never thought that The National would embrace the concept of a surprise album, but here we are. That night at their 2023 Homecoming festival, the band tore through one of their greatest accomplishments in full: High Violet. Among other songs, they played the self-stated, Walkmen-inspired “Available,” and then followed that with the high energy of Boxer’s “Apartment Story.” After finishing “Grease in Your Hair,” the band had an announcement to make. Matt Berninger took to the mic and said, “So, we have a new record coming out; it will be released on Sunday night. The name of the record is Laugh Track.” Laugh Track marks the band’s second album this year, following The First Two Pages of Frankenstein, and it’s their 10th full-length LP.

The band seems to have undergone a complete transformation from their last album, which was inspired by Berninger’s writer’s block. Laugh Track distinguishes itself with what feels like some of the longest songs the band has ever written. Right from the start, the album grabs your attention with “Alphabet City.” The guitars glitch in, but it’s Berninger’s baritone that commands attention as it descends step by step, singing, “all of your lonesomeness kept in your wallet, nobody notices, baby, you got this.” “Deep End (Paul’s In Pieces)” exhilarates with its brisk pacing reminiscent of The War on Drugs. The band shouting “Paul’s in pieces” recalls enjoyable moments from the band’s catalog, echoing songs such as my personal favorite, “Secret Meeting.” “Space Invader” takes its time and twinkles in the chorus, accompanied by Dessner’s beautiful orchestration and Bryan Devendorf’s thundering performance.

Just like I Am Easy To Find and The First Two Pages of Frankenstein, Laugh Track also features guest appearances. Phoebe Bridgers is invited back for the album’s title track, which stands out as one of the highlights. In “Weird Goodbye,” Bon Iver joins the mix, and the combination of Berninger’s voice and Justin Vernon’s falsetto truly helps the chorus soar. However, the album’s standout track has to be “Crumble.” This song exudes a rare western gothic vibe, and it’s Rosanne Cash who accompanies the band, making it not only a top track on the album but also in the group’s catalog.

To bring the album to a close, the band delivers the longest, most frantic, and rapid-fire song of the album, “Smoke Detector.” The manic sing-song and repeating rocking patterns harken back to a more intense era of Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers and Alligators. Paying attention to Devendorf’s drumming also yields rewards, as the track is enriched with little intricacies. The album then fades out gently, much like “Little Faith” on High Violet wonders in.

If you’re hoping for the self-proclaimed ‘sad dads’ to write another High Violet or Boxer, then think again. The National has continued to evolve, and while it took some time for The First Two Pages of Frankenstein to grow on me, Laugh Track had a more immediate effect. The former album was a more melancholy affair, and Laugh Track certainly has its moments of melancholy, but it’s the expansiveness and grandiosity that make the album more rewarding. While the album might be divisive among some, I’m sure you’ll find it on a few end-of-year lists.

Christopher Tahy
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