“Maybe we’ll never lighten up/Maybe this isn’t gonna quit/I think it’s never coming back/Maybe we’ve always been like this,” guest duet partner Phoebe Bridgers sings midway through the title track of The National’s surprise 10th album. Announced last weekend and released at the start of the week, it’s a moment of spontaneity from a band that have been sounding wearier and somewhat stuck as each release has appeared.
Having made one of indie rock’s slowest ascents to arena-filling status, the American quintet’s profile has never been higher thanks to multi-instrumentalist Aaron Dessner’s major contributions to Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore albums as well as Ed Sheeran’s – (Subtract).
Singer Matt Berninger has also revived the old Nick Cave and Kylie dynamic with Swift, providing vocal gloom in duets on both Evermore and the last National album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein. But the young fans who have discovered the band thanks to Swift may be unaware that they were much more exciting six or seven albums ago, when they would more frequently up the pace and volume from their go-to stately misery.
Like Folklore and Evermore, Laugh Track is a close sibling to …Frankenstein, mostly written around the same time as those songs, this one arriving with a more colourful version of the same album cover just five months later.
Laugh Track has a greater number of diversions from the set sound. The last song on the album, and the last to be recorded, is Smoke Detector, which developed from a lengthy improvisation during a pre-gig soundcheck in Vancouver in June. It feels wild and dangerous, Berninger’s usual oblique poetry becoming surreal and ranty while guitars squall and screech.
At seven minutes, Space Invader is almost as long and moves from a lovely, if pretty familiar, first half of piano and strings, into a second movement that throws everything at a crashing, croaking climax. One more, Deep End (Paul’s In Pieces), has similar dynamism without the rawness. It’s simply a speedy, euphoric rock song.
The most audible difference throughout is that Bryan Devendorf, who used electronic drum pads on …Frankenstein, is back behind a traditional kit here. His busy intricacy is interesting on every song, even as the ballads keep coming.
Best of all, this dash of fresh energy arrives right ahead of a UK tour that hits Alexandra Palace twice next week. Just in time, it sounds like they’re starting to come back to life.