By Claire Dunham, Blog Assistant
The National and Taylor Swift first crossed paths in 2020. At the time, Swift was writing her eighth album Folklore. She had met Aaron Dessner, The National’s guitarist, a year earlier and asked him to collaborate on the new record. Although the album’s writing, recording, and production process was untraditional, due to the COVID lockdown, Folklore is a testament to the power of a first-rate musical collaboration. Both Dessner and Swift would go on to win the “Album of the Year” Grammy Award for Folklore.
Now, Swift and Dessner have revived their collaboration on The National’s new album First Two Pages of Frankenstein. The record is a somber exploration of the band’s inner psyche inspired by Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein. Ultimately, this mesmerizingly mellow mood is best encapsulated in one track: “The Alcott.”
DIVING INTO THE LYRICS OF “THE ALCOTT”
During a Zane Lowe Show interview, Matt Berninger, The National’s lead vocalist, described the inspiration behind the song’s dual narrative lyrics. Berninger confessed that “The Alcott” was initially inspired by his wife, Carin Besser.
Specifically, the song tells the story of a couple’s interaction at a hotel bar. As their conversation plays out, it becomes clear that their relationship has been a rocky one. With lyrics like, “I’ll ruin it all over. And over like I always do,” it is obvious that the song’s narrators have experienced some serious self-doubt. However, it is also apparent that both lovers are willing to fight to make their relationship last.
Ultimately, the song's lyrics are unique, not because of the subject matter, but because of the collaborative writing style. According to Berninger, the band sent the original track to Swift and she replied with a counter-narrative. Essentially, Swift’s lyrics tell the “other side” of the encounter from a different perspective—her words suggest the presence of a rekindled passion and unbreakable codependency.
DIVING INTO THE SOUND OF “THE ALCOTT”
The National has been experimenting with various musical sounds since the early 2000s. They are a band that has done it all—fast songs, slow songs, rambunctious songs, and acoustic songs. On First Two Pages of Frankenstein, the group plays slower, unplugged melodies. This change in sound is complimentary with the album’s pensive lyrics.
“The Alcott” leads with strong, simple piano chords. As the song progresses, the melody becomes fuller. Whispering backing vocals, dreamlike string instruments, and a steady drumbeat combine to create a uniquely melancholy sound. Overall, the track is a funeral march with a sound that is perfect for fans of both Bon Iver and Julien Baker.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE NATIONAL?
On May 18th, The National will kick off their 2023 tour in Chicago. Throughout their tour, they will share the stage with incredible opening acts like Soccer Mommy, The Beths, Patti Smith and her band, and Bartees Strange.
They will also be in Boston on May 26th to rock out at Boston Calling Music Festival.
Every Monday, our music staff brings you a new Pick of The Week, detailing some of our favorite songs. Check out our previous Picks of the Week here, and make sure to tune in to WERS 88.9FM!