Review Summary: The National continue to impress with their fourth effort; Boxer might not be immediate, but the songs slowly take hold of the listener to ensure an unforgettable album. Highly recommended, and great for listening in the car, on headphones, or at a white-
The National's Boxer made me shrug when I first heard it two years ago. I was a naive boy of 17 back then, and preferred the winsome tunes of bands like the Shins or Guster (both of whom I still respect and enjoy) to any groups chronicling darker, more alcoholic proclivities. My brother praised the album, but other than Mistaken For Strangers and Apartment Story, no other songs moved me: I was veritably non-plussed.
After many declarations of apathy, my roommate at college convinced me to continue to try the album - and the band in general; Alligator is also among my favorite albums of this decade - and now, after 15 or 20 listens, the true genius of Boxer is extremely evident to me. Combining comically melancholic lyrics with oodles of atmosphere and wonderful instrumentation, The National create a universe in which we all want to reside, at least for a weekend night or two. Matt Berninger (vocals), brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner (piano, lead and rhythm guitar) and second pair of brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf (bass and drums) comprise the band, five musicians who have slowly honed their craft over the years so that they have now established as autonomous and recognizable a sound as other bands like The Hold Steady or the Walkmen.
Fake Empire, since appropriated by TV series and Barack Obama, opens the album enigmatically and strongly, seemingly concerned with matters both lofty and personal ("We're half-awake in a fake empire...let's not try and figure out everything at once"), but mostly with blowing our minds through a genre-bending tune. This and many other songs on the album is piano-driven, an aspect seldom mentioned by reviewers, who tend to focus on the admittedly superlative drumming also featured on Boxer.
Mistaken For Strangers follows with a siren-esque opening riff that leads into the aforementioned pounding drum beats and paranoid lyrics chronicling alienation and fear in a world much like modern-day America. The more-than-vaguely creepy lyrics of Brainy, Squalor Victoria and Green Gloves bring us halfway through the album, pervasively setting a scene of a rich, white protagonist dissatisfied both with his life and the his current whereabouts, looking for something, anything better (and a scotch or vermouth couldn't hurt).
In the middle of the album one finds a host of tremendous songs, starting with Slow Show. Slow Show is (full disclosure) one of my favorite songs by The National, one I can listen to on repeat for hours. Beginning anxiously ("Can I get a minute of not being nervous, and not thinking of my d***""), this quiet gem soon morphs into an earnest love song: "You know I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you," chants Berninger over a fantastically catchy Sufjan Stevens-supplied piano riff. These lyrics might seem corny coming from someone else's mouth, but Berninger's tender baritone endows them with a haunting, heart-breaking beauty.
I will not speak of Apartment Story at length, since any listener will most likely notice it after the first few spins and perform his or her own exegesis of its wonders. All I will say is that it is propulsive, romantic, funny, brilliantly structured, catchy, layered and wonderful. Three solid but samey-sounding songs follow, two of them (Start A War, Racing Like A Pro) hushed, slow moans about relationship troubles and the third a brooding tune, Guest Room, adding little to the album except a neat outré and obliquely regretful lyrics.
Boxer does not lose any great amount of momentum, however: Ada and Gospel are two of the finest tracks here, even if they are stuck on the very end of the LP. A flourish of pretty piano kicks off Ada, and the song evinces even more pulchritude from thereon out, its lyrics ("Ada don't stay in the lake too long/it lives alone and it barely knows you... Stand inside an empty tuxedo with grapes in my mouth") painting a realistic but romantic picture. The band ends the album with Gospel, another haunting tale of suburbia, replete with alcoholic and somewhat misogynistic lyrics paired with a beautiful piano part and an equivocatory atmosphere. It's a perfectly apt ending to a wonderful album full of contradictions, likable asshole characters, unforgettable instrumental interludes and that incomparable baritone of Matt Berninger.
I recommend this album to all musical listeners everywhere: one can listen for the witty lyrics, the brooding yet hopeful instrumentation or the singular perspective proffered by these five lads from Cincinnati. It would serve as great an introduction to the band as any of their previous CDs, as it distills all of the band's previous potential into a unified sonic vision that merits dozens of listens (even for a doubting Thomas like me).