The National Discusses The First Two Pages of New Album ‘Frankenstein’

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Matt Berninger felt paralyzed. 52-year-old lead singer NationalOne of the most enduring and influential indie rock bands of the 21st century, they were battling a devastating depression and writing disability. “I didn’t want to write, I didn’t want to do anything,” Berninger says during a Zoom interview. “But no matter how long I didn’t [write], it was so hard to reconnect with him… I hated everything I wrote; I hated the idea of ​​trying to end that thought.” As their problems continued, they fueled a cycle of self-loathing that put Berninger’s entire personality into question. “Besides, have I turned myself into this anti-human cliché that our music sometimes reflects? I was a little disgusted with myself.

Berninger’s personal struggles precipitated perhaps the group’s most difficult phase to date. By their own admission, there were serious doubts whether they would release another recording. Ultimately, National found its way back: The band’s ninth studio album, “First Two Pages of Frankenstein,” has often rejuvenated the band with Berninger’s sharp, textured and poignant writing.

But the pregnancy of the album was tortured. “It turned out that Matt had trouble writing lyrics, and then it turned out that there was more to it than that where he struggled in general,” says Bryce Dessner, the mastermind of the band’s singular orchestral arrangements. Berninger says that no matter how good the band’s instrumental sketches are, he doesn’t know what to do with them. “I described it as feeling nauseous and someone giving you the most delicious homemade apple pie.”

While many of the remedies Berninger tried were ineffective (“I quit the antidepressants and went back to weed and wine, and that actually helped quite a bit”), it was the group’s support that helped him regain his sense of normalcy. “I’ve often been one of those people who try to help people get out of these stuck places,” she says. For example, Aaron [Dessner]It was in a really similar place that I found myself in for many different reasons when we made ‘Boxer’. I remember helping him get out of it, and this time it was the other way around.

The Dessners agreed that Berninger had no lyrics or melodies to bring to the table, but had a handful of studio sessions with Berninger to help him resolve it creatively. “We were doing it as friends, not bandmates – we were really doing it as a family,” Bryce says. Adds Aaron, “It was incredibly natural for the wagons to revolve around him. I think what really helped was believing that there was still a kind of humanity and beauty in not knowing, not knowing what these songs were, not knowing what they wanted to say, not knowing.

A few songs helped Berninger regain his footing as a writer, including “Weird Goodbyes” and “Once Upon a Poolside” (the old song featuring Bon Iver is not on the track list but was released as a single last year). Yet the most important thing to change course was “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend”; The title sentence was something Berninger’s wife and frequent writing partner, Carin Besser, said to try to get him out of his depression, so it was fitting for the anchor of the song that brought him out of his recession. “I had such beautiful music that I couldn’t do anything,” Berninger says. While trying to brainstorm, she grabbed a copy of “Frankenstein” off the shelf and was instantly inspired. “I was able to write about all that weird depression and that weird place in your brain. The icy frozen tundra where the beginning of ‘Frankenstein’ took place fit where I was mentally… This song was necessary to get that off my shoulders with no shame, and then I could start rewriting about other things.

And then the songs came quickly. “You can feel it on the album,” Bryce says. “It’s actually quite poetic for us, the feeling of transitioning from a confused mind or a cloudy day to parting in the sky.” As the contours of the album began to take shape, Berninger says the band’s bond was stronger than ever: “There was no creative conflict, we were all so excited about the songs and happy that it was working again… the guys were sending me in… it worked so much better than any other technique for solving my depression. The music really impressed me.”

As they started putting the songs together, the band felt a temptation to recruit outside collaborators. Sufjan Stevens (a close friend and frequent collaborator) on “Frankenstein” Phoebe Bridgers (in two songs) and Taylor SwiftAaron Dessner co-produced their 2020 albums “Folklore” and “Evermore”. “We were just sharing songs with friends and writers we most envied and respected,” Berninger says.

“Phoebe is perhaps one of the greatest songwriters ever, you know?” And then Taylor is the greatest songwriter of our time. Aaron shared ‘The Alcott’ with him and wrote a completely different perspective on a song I wrote about my wife… and suddenly it became two sides of the story.” Aaron says Swift’s ability to bring out emotion in his music gives their partnership a unique synergy. Collaboration is… taking risks and sharing ideas with someone and hoping they will take them and share them with you. Artistic alchemy between people, chemistry can make you more than you can alone. And in Taylor’s case… I always wrote music that I felt was about something, even before I knew what it was about… When Taylor heard the sketches I was working on, she heard stories and was able to tell those stories. ”


While the aforementioned guests are in and out of focus, attention remains fixed on Berninger, who channeled his struggles beautifully into specific, observational songwriting. Berninger sees the fleeting memories in his “New Order T-Shirt” as a constant source of comfort: “I keep snapshots, snapshots and sounds from you whenever I can… I carry them in my pocket like a drug.” sings.

“Most of us have these little jewels in our pockets,” she says, “these little moments we hang, this little candy necklace of our favorite memories. I wanted to put some of those little pieces together. It’s not a narrative, just these little Polaroids of scattered memories. Aaron sees the “New Order T-Shirt” as a sign of a new episode. “What Matt said is this incredibly relatable but also weirdly incomprehensible emotional idea… it symbolizes this incredible joy and sadness in life for me… Something about that makes me think National should keep making songs. It feels like it’s about what we’ve done in the past, but a very advanced version.”

Much of the album is significantly darker. While “Tropical Morning News” has a lively energy, Berninger laments our tendency to get lost in the bleakest news that muddles our social media timeline. “Eucalyptus” is a dark and funny look at the boring logistics of ending a relationship. “I write about things I fear might happen,” she says. “Whether it’s the breakup of the band or my marriage, I think these kinds of things are always better if you look to the extreme and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the limit and I don’t want to go any further.’ ‘ … I like to write songs about things falling apart.

Frankenstein” comes after a long hiatus, partly due to the band’s involvement in side projects such as Berninger’s debut solo album, Aaron’s production work, and Aaron and Justin Vernon’s collaboration Big Red Machine. Bryce was particularly prolific and increased his output as a film composer; Most recently, he worked on “Bardo” by Alejandro Iñárritu and “C’mon, C’mon” by Mike Mills. “Every movie can be like an album,” says Bryce. “He brings his own challenges, his own voice language… Part of that is really getting to know a director and trying to get into what’s on his mind. Mike and Alejandro are very musical people… Finding a new palette for each movie is fun and challenging.”

But the partnership that binds National remains important to all of them. Next month marks the tenth anniversary of the band’s sixth album, “Trouble Will Find Me,” an episode the band remembers fondly. After the success of “High Violet,” Berninger says the group’s self-confidence is at an all-time high; this is in notable contrast to the suspenseful “Frankenstein” recording sessions. Bryce sees the album as a pivotal moment and identifies “Hard to Find”, which is closer to the album, as his favorite song he wrote with National. “I know ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ and ‘Boxer’ for my brother and I, and I think this record feels like the closest we’ve come to what we’ve truly imagined and creatively imagined. ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ is a creative pinnacle for the band.”

Frankenstein’s last song, “Send for Me”, ends the album on an unexpectedly optimistic note. “It felt like one of the kindest songs I’ve ever written, and I was writing it myself,” says Matt. “I was writing this to my daughter somehow, but also because I wished someone would come and save me from this.” Berninger found exactly what he was looking for through his family and friends. “I think he had to do that,” Bryce says. “I think we had to get through that. We had to lose each other and go back and find each other again, and that’s what we did.”

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