In what came as a surprise to even their most ardent fans, the National have released Laugh Track, their second album to come out this year. Guests include Phoebe Bridgers, Bon Iver, and Rosanne Cash.
Announced during their performance at the Homecoming Festival in Cincinnati in September, the National's Laugh Track serves as a companion to their First Two Pages of Frankenstein, which hit the shelves back in April.
While First Two Pages of Frankenstein represented a rebuilding of trust among group members after more than two decades of making music together, Laugh Track encapsulates the fruit of that newfound faith and delivers a fresh statement of artistic intent. It's their most freewheeling album in years. And in that freedom, the band has been able to radically transform its creative process. They honed most of the material in live performances during their recent tour and then captured the invigorated versions in impromptu recording sessions. Notably, the album's nearly eight-minute closing track, "Smoke Detector," was recorded during a soundcheck in Vancouver in June, adding an extra layer of spontaneity and vintage rock energy to the album.
The new album also features guest collaborations by renowned artists Phoebe Bridgers and Rosanne Cash. Meanwhile, last year's Bon Iver collab, "Weird Goodbyes," which was released as a standalone track in August 2022, found its family on the album. Aaron Dessner explained the decision, "It felt like the story had already been told. It was its own thing, but it also felt related to what we were doing. That was part of the logic for making another record — let’s give ‘Weird Goodbyes’ its own home."
Laugh Track explores a side of the band that extends beyond the gentleness found on its older siblings. Throughout their career, the National have occasionally flirted with the idea of making a rock record but struggled with the process. According to Dessner, the band developed an elaborate way of building songs, with drummer Bryan Devendorf playing a compartmentalized role. However, for Laugh Track, there was a desire to make something more vibrant, allowing Devendorf's playing to take the lead.
Thematically, there's no clear division between Frankenstein and Laugh Track. While the former saw frontman Matt Berninger searching for sanctuary, the latter presents a more clear-eyed assessment of what truly matters. The album explores Berninger's heightened need for intimacy amidst a growing fear of the unreality of modern life. The characters in these songs, often referred to simply as "I" and "you," support one another, dream for one another, and help maintain appearances, reflecting the promise of absolute care made in "Send for Me," the closing track of First Two Pages of Frankenstein.
But Laugh Track also explores what doesn't matter. The song "Turn Off the House" marks a stark departure from Berninger's earlier emotional inventories. It's a somber surrender to the idea of leaving everything behind. The songwriter's struggles with writer's block and depression are still present, but there's an acceptance in these lyrics. As he puts it, "Let’s just turn everything off and walk away. Bail out of your head, of all the things you’re worried about, your career, your whole identity, how strong you thought you were."