Album Review: The National - "Boxer"

After several respectable, if unremarkable, early releases The National burst onto the indie-rock scene with 2005’s self-assured and brash Alligator. That record, with its comically egotistical declarations (“I’m a perfect piece of ass”, “so tall I take over the street…a wingspan unbelievable”, etc.), caught the underground by surprise and catapulted the band to the forefront of the NY music scene and into a high profile tour with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. While being just a song or two too long to be considered perfect, Alligator boasts some of the best individual rock songs of the past few years in “Abel” and “Mr. November”, among many others.

If Alligator was the sound of a bunch of late 20-something, Midwest-to-Brooklyn transplants enjoying the freedom away from their proper jobs and having the time of their lives in the big city, then its follow-up, the brilliant Boxer, is the sound of the band coming back down to Earth. Throughout the new record’s 12 songs there is a definite sense that the party is over, leaving the band to figure out where they fit in now that they’ve accomplished goal number 1: making a name for themselves. The answer to that question is to take a step back. Other than its more consistently relaxed mood, Boxer doesn’t sound that noticeably different than its predecessor . Lead singer/lyricist Matt Berninger, with his rich baritone, still sounds like a buzzed aristocrat weaving sordid tales, only now those tales have become more seasoned, as his unmistakable vocals and sardonic lyrics continue to give The National much of their identity. Guitarists Scott Devendorf and Bryce Dessner once again ring out plenty of catchy and chimy riffs. But the secret weapon on this album is the drumming of Bryan Devendorf. His playing is so rhythmically creative and prominent in the mix that it becomes more than just the backbone of the music - it often competes with Berninger himself as the center of attention.

The easiest distinction between Boxer and Alligator is on Boxer’s first track, the elegant “Fake Empire”. It starts off indiscreetly with some talent show piano and Berninger getting ready for a night out in his ‘shiny city’, complete with his spiked lemonade and ‘diamond slippers’ and doing ‘gay ballet’ with ‘bluebirds on our shoulders’. This getting- ready-for-a (strange)-night-on-the-town motif instantly recalls one of Alligator’s standout tracks, “All the Wine”. In it Berninger confidently declared himself ‘a birthday candle in a circle of black girls’ and that “all the wine is all for me”. But where “All The Wine” never really amounted to much more than an extroverted, semi-perverse boys-night-out anthem, “Fake Empire” becomes something more world weary and fearful. The refrain, “we’re half awake in a fake empire” is not only ambiguously political, but also connotes the disinterest all those night owls seem to have towards the country’s well being during this time of constant crisis. Berninger now sings with a knowing maturity that those reckless nights come with a price, but there is still a vagueness as to what to do about it.

The lovely, reflective “Start A War” also makes allusions to the times we live in when he sings ‘walk away now and you’re gonna start a war’. It’s a striking image, especially considering the times, but it’s meant in an interpersonal way - a private war between people. Yet he also sings ‘we expected something better than before, we expected something more’ in such a way as to imply wanting something sturdy to believe, but not knowing what that thing is. His characters all seem to suffer similar fates - as in the search for identity of “Mistaken For Strangers”, or looking towards TV and popular culture for meaning in “Apartment Story”. The idea of begrudgingly dealing with responsibility while others around you aren’t yet ready to do the same repeatedly surfaces. There are references to being ‘mistaken for strangers by your own friends’ (“Mistaken For Strangers”), of being ‘out of touch/all my friends are somewhere getting wasted’ (“Green Gloves”), and of once being ‘a blowing young ruffian/oh my God, it was a million years ago’ (“Racing Like A Pro”). These images of being lost in your own life come with a forlorn resignation and disappointed acceptance of such an ill-favored fate.

Despite its lack of sonic grit Boxer is every bit the album Alligator was, and may even surpass it. Where that album swung wildly from balls-out rock (and some ferocious yelling on the part of Berninger that is nowhere to be found here), to hypnotic mid-tempo street poetics, to lavish, string-adorned grandiosity, Boxer remains content to hang somewhere in the middle of the three, giving it more overall focus. Even when Boxer does decide to “rock” it does so in a way that only teeters on the edge of a full-on release, as on the aforementioned “Mistaken For Strangers” and “Apartment Story”. The cathartic, primal wailing of “Abel” has given way to more a more nuanced and contemplative voice. Nowhere is this better displayed than on the haunting closer, “Gospel”. Over a disarming melody that hints at Tom Waits’ “Martha”, Berninger sings ‘let me come over, I can waist your time, I’m bored/invite me to the war every night of the summer”, which basically sums up everything that comes before - the sense wanting to do something, but not being sure what, during a difficult time. Perhaps inadvertently, The National have captured and expressed a sense of lethargy on Boxer that many of this generation share. The thing is, lethargy has never sounded better.

MP3 :: Apartment Story
MP3 :: Start A War
(from Boxer)
Boxer will be available 5/22 through Beggars

The National - Website

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