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Getting older, with — or without? — The National

Photography by Graham MacIndoe / Dave Herring / Joel Jasmin
Collage by Jackie Lay / NPR

I first heard The National's newest album, Laugh Track, on the day last month when my wife, Tina, and I finally set foot in our new house, thousands of miles from where we'd always lived.

It was not the first time the group's music had scored some notable point along the arc of my adult life. In fact, that serendipity had come to feel more like a constant. In my 20s and 30s, The National had served as grumpy but avuncular mentors, five men a decade or so older than me who had endured the mystery, injury and wonder of growing up, then written songs that suggested I too would get by, no matter how gray the dawns seemed. Now freshly 40 and having spent much of the last decade engaged in a sort of purposeful wandering, I was finally on the threshold of an exciting and anxious-making next phase: an actual house we would make a home.

For the better part of a decade (all our marriage, really), Tina and I have longed to leave the easy climes of the East Coast, to resettle among the savage peaks of Colorado or Wyoming. We have nibbled around the edges for years, living in a van on the West's vast reserves of public land and spending a summer atop a cave in South Dakota. The fierce real estate market, obdurate family ties and sheer fear, though, kept us anchored to all we'd ever known.

But early this summer, as we walked across Montana along the Continental Divide Trail from Canada, we spotted just what we'd been looking for online, a cabin wedged among Colorado's Rockies at nearly 9,000 feet. We made an offer without seeing it, emptied our life savings into the endeavor, signed the contracts on our cell phones and began making plans to uproot everything.

The day I heard Laugh Track — The National's second album of 2023 and a surprise that landed on a Monday in September — we had completed nearly two-thirds of our 3,000-mile journey. The plan was to see our new spot for the first time, take some measurements, spend a night and make sure we didn't have buyer's remorse before pressing on down the spine of the United States, clear to the southern border. Those few moments in what would become our home, then, were weighted with anticipation and potential.

Perhaps, I thought, my longtime accidental mentors would again have some insight. I hoped Laugh Track would become what so many of the band's records had uncannily been for me: reassuring words from trusted elders that some monumental life decision was indeed a step in the right direction, or at least a soundtrack laden with insight.

It was instantly apparent to me that I didn't love Laugh Track, that it wasn't the kind of National record that would score some grand new chapter. The exploratory arc of their quarter-century career felt like it had stalled, both musically and emotionally, while I was doing my best to move forward. Starting a new decade, in a new place, one that marked the biggest risk of my domestic life, I could only find in Laugh Track — as with its similarly static predecessor, April's First Two Pages of Frankenstein — a warning sign for encroaching middle age: Don't buy into your own success so much that you simply sit still in it. Perhaps the group that had helped lead me into and out of early adulthood had nowhere else to guide me. Maybe there was a lesson in that, too.

For a band of five middle-aged men mostly plying the conventional tools of indie rock, The National have long garnered surprising scorn and devotion. Their detractors hear frontman Matt Berninger speak-sing his self-doubt in a forlorn baritone over tessellated guitars and marching drums and picture the long face of, say, Paul Giamatti, marveling at his withering reflection in the window through which he should be watching his family leave for the last time. It is tediously sad, they say. Within the same sound, diehards hear an exquisite and aggressive vulnerability, Berninger laying bare his despair with a masculine aplomb so rare it seems an American paradox.

This boosterism and backbiting have only endeared The National to me, because they've inflamed the kind of passions I don't expect with seemingly inert indie rock in this decade.

After all, both sides have a point. That long-standing tension within The National — between ideas of maudlin miserabilists and articulate romantics, and how these musicians occupy those seemingly binary spaces at the same time — is what has long drawn me toward them, even if I've never become an outright apostle. They have long succeeded between feelings, and what is growing if not sorting through the uncertainty of your own emotion? More than anything else, The National have verified my bifurcated perspectives: completely in awe of the world, but perennially at odds with so much of it, too.

This is why The National have provided such a steady series of mileposts for my own experience of aging and, more important, awakening. I was a Southern teenager reared mostly on country music when I found myself suddenly working in an iconic indie record store in 2003. I accepted The National's 2003's Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers as part of an epiphany, realizing how emotionally jarring and unflinching songwriting could be. I could hear The National working out an identity in real time, just as I was at 19.

The next two albums, 2005's Alligator and 2007's Boxer, were the breakthroughs, dangerous and smart, shouts of sex and booze and big ideas about the world perfect for our own early-20s flailing as the country lumbered toward endless war and we all began to log on to log our every feeling in real time. Sometime around the release of the latter, friends and I raced across our state after work to see them play with a bigger band in an ostentatious theater. We careened back later that night, existing on too many beers and too little sleep, going directly to our jobs with a tirelessness I've since learned only the young can muster.

There was the time in 2010 I flew to Manhattan after a late night spent consummating some short-lived, high-velocity love affair. I was visiting the city to interview a different artist, but I listened to the then-new High Violet on repeat in the city streets, the music's mystery matching my wonder with the place and my lust back home. The National's wild days seemed to be there still — but fading, settling into songs that surveyed more stable horizons.

Mere months later and already in a different relationship, my now-wife and I were pawning precious records to make our first rent payments together. She told me she couldn't sell her copy of Alligator because Berninger had signed it after a show when she excitedly invited him over for spaghetti Bolognese. (He declined.) We listened to it that night in the dark on our buckling little couch, holding vigil for our uncertain future together and unaware that we, too, had found our own horizon.

Three years later, I bought her a copy of Trouble Will Find Me, and we put it on the white turntable we intended as the modest pièce de resistance of the old home we had somehow managed to afford. That was the year I turned 30, the year we got married. In 2017, after we'd sold that home and moved into a van headed west, I remember streaming Sleep Well Beast with the skosh of cell service I managed to locate in the shower house at the base of Denali. I marveled at the samples and new textures, how the band had hurled itself toward something unknown, scary and exciting. And how, in this remote corner of the world, I was doing the same thing. The National had seen me — us, really — through our past and toward the world to come.

Looking out now over those memories, High Violet stands in my mind as the band's masterpiece, when they crystallized their first decade of brooding and beauty into 48 rapturous minutes. During the subsequent decade, their search for what was next was dogged: those samples, the guest-laden I Am Easy to Find, a box set with105 performances of a single song. Even if those efforts missed me more than they hit me, I always admired the quest, a venerable lack of contentment and resignation for a band aging into an indie rock institution.

But I didn't hear that desire on First Two Pages of Frankenstein, their first record of 2023. An occasionally beautiful but overly maudlin set of piano ballads, stilted dance tracks and acoustic arcs, Frankenstein revealed a version of The National without something left to discover. Not even guests Taylor Swift, Phoebe Bridgers and Sufjan Stevens could help them find their footing in a frontier. Made following an extended span of intra-band tension and Berninger's own depression and writer's block, it felt like an obvious attempt to lift The National from natural senescence.

In the process, though, they took the shape, for me, of the worst stereotype of themselves, Giamatti staring out of that window as some soft-rock treacle oozed from the new Sonos system behind him. (There was, for God or Noah Baumbach's sake, a line about who gets the Mountain Valley Spring Water in a split.) The National sounded stuck, their years of exploration left in the rear view. I felt as though I were staring back at my mentors across some once-inconceivable divide.

Laugh Track reinforced a malingering feeling that The National have nothing new to say or do, that they're just keeping the wheels in careerist motion. Recorded in a burst of activity in Portland a month after Frankenstein's release, their 10th album has all the press-cycle trappings of a late-career renaissance, at least on the surface — struggling veteran band on the verge of falling apart overcomes major impasse to find unexpected oomph, on a record released with no warning.

For the better part of an hour, though, The National sounds like a sophisticated lounge act. Drums lope through vaporous guitars and electronic hazes, the band framing middle-aged, upper-middle-class brooding with a nonchalance that suggests such sentiments barely take work at this point. There are murmurs of insomnia, narcolepsy and tinnitus. There are multiple odes to escaping social obligations and testimonials to ennui and resulting existential dread. There is self-doubt and self-deprecation and self-seriousness, with very little light or, as it were, laughter ever leaking into the room.

The National have spoken of Laugh Track as a rock album, a chance to shake the sheets; drummer Bryan Devendorf even called it "the fourth quarter ... [the time] to leave it all on the field." But the songs rarely rise above the kind of autumnal rustle that Aaron Dessner helped shape for Swift's folklore. The hooks, at least, were better there.

The National are, by every measure, one of indie rock's most successful and singular bands, able to tour amphitheaters, build their own studios, guest on Swift records and release things like a luxe, indulgent, experimental 9-LP set in collaboration with a renowned Icelandic visual artist. As with any relationship, they've had their troubles, but the same quintet has astonishingly endured for more than two decades. They say they're closer and more collaborative now than they have been in years.

But Laugh Track is sullen, lacking in camaraderie, gratitude or hope. The National survived salad days fueled by sadness. So did I. What I want to hear now is this group of inveterate mopers dealing with how good they have it, with the thrill and mystery of still being around, because that's honestly how I feel, too. The National seem to still exist in a miasma of despair. I just want my trusted old uncle to help me envision something more out there, something still possible up ahead.

Maybe that's why I respond most strongly to "Smoke Detector," the most uncharacteristic and legitimately fun track The National have released in years. They seem like they're having a ball, as a band and as people. The song started as a soundcheck vamp onstage in British Columbia, Berninger freestyling about pills, pockets and plastic bags over a groove that might have been swiped from a missing Marquee Moon session. Both the riffs and the words are agitated and searching, trying to stake out a story that does not have a preordained shape. Arriving at Laugh Track's end, it is a jarring reminder of how stiff and settled in their ways The National feel elsewhere, a wild eight-minute exception that proves their new unsurprising rules. There is joy there, abandon, a future.

It is no great tragedy, of course, to no longer connect with a band you've liked for nearly two decades, even one whose records have unintentionally traced and tracked your own story. A single band cannot and should not be your life, and they've never been close to that for me. There are bigger problems in every life, and there are enough albums by enough bands for 100 lifetimes, anyway, The National representing but a sliver. Other incidental soundtracks obviously exist.

I am left to wonder, then, if it is too much to want The National to become something more than they've always been, to write or sound like more than a sad-dad repository after nearly a quarter-century working. Is it fair for a fan to hope that a favorite band happens to come along for the ride that is their life, or should they simply be content that the band still exists, that it's still making music for anyone else who needs it? Fandom, of course, is a parasocial relationship, with one side receiving or rejecting what the other is offering. That doesn't mean the bonds don't feel real, that it doesn't smart when a connection that felt crucial starts to snap.

There is one song on Laugh Track that makes my heart actually hurt – that is, it reminds me of the surely clogging arteries of my newly 40-year-old pump and the way my blood pressure likely creeps ever upward, toward a heaven that won't have me. The National first released "Weird Goodbyes," a stately and somber duet with the processed falsetto of Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, as a single a year ago. It didn't do much for me then; within the contextual doldrums of this year's dual albums, however, it puts damning words and beautiful harmony to the expanding chasm between my own life, as I head for something new, and The National, as they settle deeper into old furrows.

On the precipice of some major life upheaval, Berninger catalogues everything he sees and feels at home, evidence to prove later what he once had. He blames himself and his lack of gumption for whatever's going down. His eventual exit, in a rainstorm with the radio blaring some torturously sad old song, is a total mess. "My car is creeping, I think it's dying," he moans, Vernon's high notes climbing over his baritone like vines across a crumbling fortress. "I'm pulling over, until it heals." But that is not how cars work, of course, repairing themselves on the shoulder of some rainy road. They take effort to fix, to steer toward whatever horizon you can conjure. I hear, then, The National as the car themselves, idling there "on a shoulder of lemon fields" until the ignominious end arrives, others whizzing by toward their own uncharted futures. I want out, even if the bailing stings.

Seeing The National there in the rearview, the disappointment of no longer being excited by them or having them soundtrack at least part of my own story slowly yields to a much more welcome sense of gratitude. For so long, they lit signal torches on an uncertain journey into adulthood. I needed what they offered. Their romantic desperation, anxious introspection and endless sense of searching tracked my life for so long, but I've reached a point where that's not the mood that meets my situation. What a gift, really.

At least The National feel reinvigorated by the process of releasing two albums in a year, by being a band again. Maybe First Two Pages of Frankenstein and Laugh Track are the sounds of themselves shaking themselves awake before heading again toward somewhere new, where we might rendezvous again. But maybe not. Perhaps their milieu forever remains anxious and beautiful, unaltered by the bounty of their success. There will always be, after all, frustrated folks trying to map out their lives as they live them. Despite their advancing age, The National still writes, sings and plays well for those confusions of early adulthood. I, at least, am happy to have left that need back there somewhere, along the shoulders of lemon fields.

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