Review Summary: Nearly flawless in execution, Boxer is The National's second masterpiece and a near-classic.
Sneaking up on critics and music fans alike, Alligator
, the last album from Brooklyn band The National
, was quietly released in early 2005 to positive reviews. Touring with the support of fellow New Yorkers Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
slowly but steadily generated critical acclaim and ended the year by being placed on a substantial number of "best of 2005" lists, as well as gaining the support of celebrities such as Bruce Springsteen. That The National aren't on the same level of popularity as a band like Interpol
or Bloc Party
may be difficult to understand for those who fell in love with Alligator
or the band's earlier work. In any case, if Boxer
is not the record that propels them to stardom, it's unlikely that they'll ever make a record that will.
Few bands have emerged from the underground in recent years that are able to have all the right ingredients and to use them correctly, but this is exactly what makes The National, and indeed Boxer
, such a valuable experience. Matt Berninger is a highly gifted lyricist, able to conjure up all sorts of images and feelings through his unorthodox writing style that abandons linear narrative in favour of collages of dialogue, monologue and imagery. Filtered through his distinctive baritone that interprets and enunciates them to perfection, Berninger's lyrics form the backbone for everything that defines The National's identity. Underneath is the instrumentation of the Dessners and the Devendorfs, the two sets of brothers that make up the rest of the band. In addition, The National employ the use of strings, brass and piano to fill out the sound. However, instead of dominating the mix in a grandiose manner along the lines of, say, The Arcade Fire
or The Polyphonic Spree
, the instruments are used in a subtle manner to complement the songs rather than to overpower the listener with a sense of enormity. Like all truly great albums, Boxer
is a grower, offering little instant appeal, but rewarding the listener significantly when they become familiar enough with it to pick up all the subtleties.
As an album, Alligator
succeeded in large part because of its ability to incorporate a number of songs that were highly varied into a flowing work where each song complemented the other. Boxer
flows in a similar way, though the contrasts aren't as big. One of the best examples is the pairing of the extremely powerful first four tracks with "Green Gloves", which features a softly picked acoustic guitar supplemented by some beautiful octave riffing, all underneath Berninger's brilliant lyrics. What's perhaps the strongest aspect of Boxer
is that every single thing seems to be placed into the music with the purpose of complementing something else. It's this reason that The National are able to layer so many different parts without the mix ever feeling too dense or overpowering. The 'whatever works' approach also allows for plenty of sparse moments, such as the aforementioned "Green Gloves", as well as album closer "Gospel" and the beginning of "Start A War". Each song works perfectly as an individual, and as part of a whole and this can only be attributed to the band's incredible commitment to making each song everything it can possibly be. This restraint is possibly best evident on album highlight "Start A War", in which the drums spend most of the song building up, only to end on a simple, soft beat rather than bursting into the dramatic walls of distortion that could have so easily ruined the song.
It's rare to find an album that is truly more than the sum of its parts, but it's even more rare to find an album like Boxer
, where the work as a whole is more than the sum of its parts, but the parts themselves are consistently brilliant. The same is true of Berninger's lyrics; at times they seem to be composed from a series of perfect one-liners, but when they are put together they are even more special. That's not to say that Boxer
is without its flaws; it does start to slightly sag towards the end before being left on a perfect note with "Gospel". Unlike Alligator
's closer, the huge, emotionally charged "Mr. November", "Gospel" is a subtle, content finish to a true journey of an album. Elsewhere, "Mistaken For Strangers" is the perfect kind of anthemic sing-along that The National proved they were capable of with songs like "Lit Up". "Guest Room" carries with it a sort of nervous beauty and is perfectly placed after the strong but subtle build up of "Start A War". "Start A War" itself is surely one of the best songs that The National have ever produced, full of superb single lines ("I'll get money, I'll get funny again", "Do you really think you can put it in a safe behind a painting, lock it up and leave") and melodies to match. Opener "Fake Empire" is the perfect overture for the rest of the album, beginning with some truly gorgeous piano courtesy of guest player Sufjan Stevens
and ending in an explosion of brass and the usual rock instruments.
was The National's first masterpiece then Boxer
is surely their second, a 12-song journey that thoroughly exemplifies everything that a modern rock band should be capable of. While they may not have created something that should receive instant status as a classic, Boxer
has certified The National's status as one of the premier rock bands of this decade. Whether it will propel them stardom and in time become known as one of the finest albums of the 2000s, only time will tell.
Equally brilliant music
The record is perfectly dense
Drops in quality ever so slightly towards the end
Mistaken For Strangers
Start A War
Final Rating: 4.5/5