The National Embraced “Sad Dad Rock”—Then Wrote a Straight-Up Love Song

Sufjan showing up on another National record might very well have been on your bingo card 15 years ago, but a Taylor Swift feature almost certainly was not. But it’s 2023, and she’s here, too, dueting with Berninger on “The Alcott.” A wistful ballad about a couple negotiating their relationship, the song came out of the creative pipeline between Swift and Dessner. In a certain slant of light you could mistake it for an outtake from Swift’s Folklore/Evermore sessions. It’s clear that Berninger has tremendous respect for Swift, and he was thrilled when she contributed to the song. “She’s a writer, and the whole ‘sitting in a place writing in a notebook about somebody,’ I think Taylor immediately sort of identified,” he said.

The standout featured artist, however, is Phoebe Bridgers. Bridgers has been firmly in the National’s orbit for the last few years, performing with them live and collaborating with Berninger on “Walking on a String” for the Between Two Ferns movie. “There’s something very particular about Phoebe’s voice that feels like a memory,” said Berninger. “Her voice can do that thing where it feels like water or something, like a reflection of a voice.” An ethereal counterpoint to Berninger, she appears on two tracks on The First Two Pages of Frankenstein, including the single “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend.”

That song is the one that emerged from Berninger’s encounter with Shelley’s Frankenstein—”tranquilize” became the lyric “tranquilize the ocean between the poles”—and the one that speaks most directly to his dark year. The title is something that Besser reminded Berninger of throughout his depression, that his brain was causing the way he was feeling. Together Berninger and Bridgers sing, “Don’t you understand that your mind is not your friend again? It takes you by the hand and leaves you nowhere.” It feels like a classic National song, and an instant National classic.

One track, however, is pointedly not a classic National song, an outlier in their catalog—the album closer, “Send for Me.” It’s a love song, plain and simple, and maybe, Berninger acknowledges, the tenderest thing he’s ever written. “Those are hard songs to write, songs about good feelings and love,” he said. “They sound saccharine. Any song that can pull off the word ‘love’ anywhere in a line that doesn’t make you [he gags], roll your eyes, is a feat.”

“Ending the record on a sweet embrace of a song was important to me,” Berninger said. “I needed something bright in my soul.” In that regard, “Send for Me” feels like a triumph. At his lowest, Berninger worried the National had entered in its endgame. The First Two Pages of Frankenstein proves otherwise. With a little help from his friends, Berninger exited the long black period and made another excellent record with his band—more sad songs for lovers, dirty and otherwise. “It wasn’t until I stopped hating myself for whatever reason,” he said, “that I started to be able to write about hating myself.”

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