The National - Boxer
Alex Worsnip 20/06/2007
The National have always struck as a dependable sort of band. I have a few of their albums, and they're solid efforts punctuated by the odd understated gem. I must admit, though, that there was always something (sonically, at least) about them that struck me as something of an American Coldplay - leading to the nagging suspicion that their coolness was due to their nationality. Play a few ballads and sing in a British accent and you'll be called a bedwetter; sing it in an American accent and you'll be called a tortured genius. Correspondingly, I regarded the Pitchfork-y hype surrounding last album 'Alligator' with the appropriate degree of distance and suspicion.
'Boxer' changes of all of this. Put simply, it is the record where The National prove their worth as Grade-A songwriters over the course of a whole album. It's a far more sustained, far deeper, far more emotional listen than anything they're produced to date. Where once The National were just another indie band, 'Boxer' sees them transcend that narrow scene for a sound that is, in a rather vague and overused word, classic. The instrumentation is simple: ringing, slightly reverb-soaked pianos, subtle guitar dynamics, and occasionally, as on 'Fake Empire', horns. On top of it is the dark, rich voice of Matt Berninger: think Nick Cave if he'd been raised on Springsteen & Cash instead of Reed & Bowie.
Most of the songs are quiet, and it's the acoustic moments that have the most immediate resonance. In particular, 'Racing Like A Pro' is gorgeously aching, fluttering along on picked acoustic guitar and morose fiddle, and 'Green Gloves' makes fantastic use of guitar texture and backing vocals to create a dense fog of melancholy. The folksiness of the arrangements, combined with Berninger's croon and back-home lyrics, evoke warm summer evenings in the country: its all the more surprising when you check that The National aren't from Georgia but New York (believe it or not, several of them worked in dot-com city jobs before the band).
But its not all “picking apples, making pie”; there's a harder edge to the band, which was present on “Alligator” and is represented in the main here by “Mistaken For Strangers”. It's slightly scratchy, with just a touch of Joy Division in the verse's tribal drumbeat and the distant, screeching riff. Equally, Brainy” is a subtle, dense slice of atmospheric gloom-rock, with Berninger bringing just a touch of menace to his dark vocal (“think I'd better follow you around/you might need me more than you think you will”). But ultimately the music could still be always described as tasteful (and, indeed, beautiful): it's cleaned up and sanitized, and all the better for it, because The National are no post-punk band, and they wouldn't pretend to be. Your mum might skip “Mistaken For Strangers” if you gave her the album, but it wouldn't stop you from giving it to her (in fact, please do).
But perhaps best of all is the album's magisterial opening piece, “Fake Empire”. Instantly soothing with its gentle piano chords, it eventually builds to a cathartic climax, wistful and hopeful at once, powered along by energetic drumming, buzzing rhythm guitar and those aforementioned horns. It's the kind of opener that indicates something very special to come. The rest of the album does not disappoint.