“More off the cuff, more collaborative,” is how Aaron Dessner describes the songs on The National’s surprise 10th album Laugh Track. Dropping just five months after the smart, supportive and slightly soporific Two Pages of Frankenstein, this is an album that apparently saw some of its looser and more upbeat songs growing out of soundcheck jams. “Maybe this is just the funniest version of us/ That we’ve ever been,” sing Matt Berninger and old mucker Phoebe Bridgers on the album’s title track.
Naturally, The National, on even their “funniest” form, aren’t going to make wedding disco material. But they do sound lighter and more flexible. Long-term fans of the thoughtful indie rockers will enjoy the recovering, rhythmic snap and flex that comes with entrenched sadness shifting out of joints. I was reminded of an old relaxation exercise that asks you to imagine ball bearings settling at the hips and shoulders, then picturing them rolling down the limbs, past knees and elbows and exiting at the fingers and toes. It’s there in the fluid knuckles of the piano, the deep pocket of the drums.
This sudden faith in their intuition is reflected in the lyrics. Against the gentle synth shimmer of opener “Alphabet City”, Berninger sings that “Sometimes I wanna drive around and find you/ And act like it’s a random thing…” His faith in the greater, safety net structure of life comes later when he assures his lover: “Everything’s orchestrated, follow the arrows/ Let’s meet where we used to in Alphabet City.”
The big drums come pounding in with “Deep End (Paul’s in Pieces)” and Bon Iver joins the band over the soft-pad Eighties-drum-machine pulse of “Weird Goodbyes”. The two men’s shaky voices connect and drift over classically Berningerian angsty lines wracked with “Humidity, history, chemistry and panic”. His deep, grazed vocals are rusty pipes, snagging the emotions on their way to release. It’s a song that leads you into a trance state and made me wonder if The National might be modern America’s answer to the lo-fi, sad elations of The Blue Nile. Skittery drums keep pulling the rug from underneath the consoling melody of “Turn off the House”, but a more stable companionship is offered by “Dreaming”. Berninger always sounds like a man singing with palms upturned, seeking answers, and here there’s no judgement in his steady realisation: “You personalise everything/ Everyone’s emotions/ It’s always all about you.” It sounds as though he might be singing about himself, with weary compassion.
The Dessners’ guitars also sound a little lower-slung on this record. They allow themselves to sway towards the tunes, running their fingers over the strings slightly behind the beat of “Space Invader”. The easy swing flows into “Hornets”, as Berninger shrugs: “We always get bogged down in the heavy s***… I don’t know if you’re going to come back from your cigarette break”. They do some prettiness with the finger-picking on “Coat on a Hook” and a little spaciness on “Tour Manager”, where muffled percussion and gently pinged guitars build in opposition to a lyrical plea for quiet. Roseanne Cash brings a bereft vocal slosh to the country twang of “Crumble”, and the album fades out with the excellent 7.47-minute “Smoke Detector”. The track builds from a line – “Smoke detector/ All you need is to protect her” – Berninger’s had smouldering for years. As the guitar hook slowly sparks and scorches he mumbles on in a stream of cleverly irked self-consciousness. Flipping into a snarkier higher register, he self-soothes, “I’ll get better, I’ll fluff the feathers/ I’ll punch in the numbers and enter the letters,” before the neediness sneaks in: “Why don’t you lay here and listen to distant sirens with me? You don’t know how much I love you, do you?”
It’s true that listening to The National often makes me feel like I’m hearing ghosts of their previous songs. Old chords and thoughts stalk the halls of different songs. But it’s hard to resist their shimmering, shapeshifting companionship. And on Laugh Track the ghosts are floppier and friendlier than they’ve been in a while.