‘Surprise bonus releases’ are a tricky thing. They’re welcomed by fans, but also seen as a little suspect, a little too much ‘b-sides we didn’t think were good enough for the main album that we recently put out.’ The artist often doesn’t tour behind it, having just already toured the prior release, and thus the songs can slip into being forgotten. There are often aren’t any singles. They can sound a lot like what was just previously released. And they don’t benefit from anticipation, or it having been a long time since the artist’s last new record.
The National’s surprise second album of 2023, Laugh Track, comes right on the heels of The First Two Pages of Frankenstein (QRO review) – which would make this The Second Two Pages of Frankenstein. And while Track can’t match the highly anticipated Frankenstein, even as it also sounds similar, it’s still another great, tragic National release.
And it’s not without singles, as Laugh has become home for last year’s non-album single/return from COVID “Weird Goodbyes” (QRO review), featuring none other than Bon Iver. Indeed, the guest stars are notable on Track, between Justin Vernon there, the titular Track intimate duet with Phoebe Bridgers, and even some more country-esque sounds with Rosanne Cast in “Crumble”. By this point, The National are massive stars, and can pull in the big name supporters (no Taylor Swift, though…).
That size and long history does mean that they are at risk of sounding very much like themselves, and Laugh does sound like the decidedly not-laughing band. If some of the lower-key songs such as “Turn Off the House” are a little forgettable, a little bit a generic idea of a National song, there’s also such classic hallmarks of the group as the piano-led sorrow “Hornets”, more pressing “Deep End (Paul’s in Pieces)” & “Smoke Detector”, and even the shaky relationships “Space Invader” & “Coat on a Hook”, as singer Matt Berninger still knows how to tell a sad love story.
Like how Taylor Swift released evermore right after folklore (both with production from The National’s Aaron Dessner at their own Long Pond Studio), maybe we didn’t need Laugh Track, but it’s an entirely welcome addition to their amazing catalogue.