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The National’s Laugh Track Review

“You’re there with your pistol telling me not to be so melodramatic,” Matt Berninger sings on “Coat on a Hook,” one of 12 cuts from The National‘s new surprise release, Laugh Track. “Don’t leave me here at this party like a coat on a hook,” he bids the listener.

Laugh Track is a companion piece to First Two Pages of Frankenstein, which the band released just a few months ago in April of 2023. By their telling, Laugh Track is a record that demanded to be born into the world. While on tour this summer, a soundcheck spilled into an impromptu jam session, the bones of which Berninger and his bandmates (Aaron and Bryce Dessner plus Scott and Bryan Devendorf) then took to Long Pond Studio to capture before recording the remainder in Portland’s Flora Recording & Playback.

The final results, according to the group, are fairly similar to what happened onstage that day that made them feel like there was still music to be made and stories to be told. This at least offers an interesting backstory to how they came up with something like “Smoke Detector,” a meandering, nearly-eight-minutes song, where Beringer’s warbling vocals wander through thoughts on blackbirds, pharmacy slippers, and the passage of time while asymmetrical guitars bounce behind him. But according to Berninger, in creating this particular song, “A weed sprouted up and it was full of flowers and weird snakes.” And that is not the last time things get a bit, well, melodramatic.

The companion album is a funny thing. Sometimes, what’s left on the cutting room floor is tangible enough that the songs take form almost on their own; maybe there are just some stories left to be told, as The National collaborator Taylor Swift found with “sister” albums folklore and evermore, both of which saw involvement from Aaron Dessner. When The National released First Two Pages of Frankenstein, our own Abby Jones wondered at what point consistency from the band slips into tedium. While it was a record that intentionally carved out gentleness in a way the act hadn’t always prioritized before, it also didn’t dramatically move the needle creatively — yet this was the album the band members felt was ready for a second installment.

Laugh Track recruited Bon Iver for pre-release single “Weird Goodbyes” and Roseanne Cash for the rootsy “Crumble.” Phoebe Bridgers, who appeared on First Two Pages’ “This Isn’t Helping,” is back for this project’s title track, a sleepy, cyclical number whose name is antithetical to the contents.

The album is at its best when things get full and rich, like the slow build to the start of “Tour Manager” or the glittery production on “Turn Off the House.” Drummer Bryan Devendorf returns to a kit for this outing after spending most of his time with machines on First Two Pages, and the difference is tangible. Characteristically, though, Berninger tends to stay in the same vocal space across Laugh Track, dipping thrillingly low in “Alphabet City” in a way that feels like a tease of possibilities unexplored. “Space Invader” is another standout, which arrived a month ahead of the album and includes a lengthy instrumental break towards the end. It’s big, full, and genuinely rousing, the drama of which is undercut by Berninger’s low mumbles.

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