Any discussion of the National’s latest album, Boxer, must start with talk of the band’s last offering, 2005’s Alligator. Widely hailed as one of the best albums of that year, it was a moody, brooding powerhouse.
Dark and disturbed but undeniably catchy, the songs on Alligator railed against hopeless melancholy while wallowing in that very feeling. In the tradition of the Smiths and the Cure, the National took confusion and loneliness and paired them with rousing choruses and monster hooks to craft a powerful sound that staked the band’s claim to a unique patch of indie-rock real estate.
The National’s music touches the listener in a special, most unusual way. The songs aren’t full of easy messages or much in the way of lightheartedness, but they get you somewhere deep down in the gut where things are messy and don’t feel quite right. A lot of bands try to go the morose, deep route and end up playing garden-variety douche rock. The National has its aesthetic down. And when I say down, I mean low down.
You know those old Irish folk songs that talk about the lowest lows and tattered hearts but have a solid melody and are fun to sing along with? The National updated that form for the new millennium on Alligator. Now, along comes Boxer, an album so in tune with the sad beauty of falling down it makes confusion sound like a good idea, depression seem almost preferable to any other option. It’ll draw tears without due caution, an album ideally suited to the combination of introspection and cheap wine.
The first thing fans of Alligator will notice about Boxer is the lack of its predecessor’s gigantic hooks. The band was out for blood on its last album, bashing listeners over the head and shouting, “Look here, damnit! Everything is f#&$ed, but we’ll get through this!” The new music is still melancholy, still moody, but it seems the National is much more content to let the songs be what they are. A steady build-up leading to a satisfying follow-through is the new aesthetic ideal. Patience and subtlety take the place of those dominating hooks. While some might see that as a loss, the new direction signals a new maturity.
Horns, piano and orchestral arrangements are all over the album, providing texture and ambience. Restrained guitars and persistent, shuffling drums move the songs from A to B. Band member Aaron Dessner told Billboard that Boxer has things on it the band has never tried before. From a group who would have garnered raves by rehashing its established formula, this growth is an encouraging development.
Lead singer Matt Berninger’s baritone is smooth as ever, another conduit of the melancholy. You can just picture him huddled over a desk, a glass of whiskey next to him, one candle burning, a cigarette smoldering in a makeshift ashtray among several fallen comrades as Berninger pours his heart into a journal. He plays the role of the brooding drunken poet, and in another era he might have been called a Beat. He probes his depths and reports back with what he finds. Sometimes it aches, sometimes it’s rather gruesome, but it’s always real. One gets the sense that Berninger is a frighteningly honest bastard.
On “Start a War,” he sings, “We expected something/Something better than before/We expected something more/You were always weird but I never had to hold you by the edges like I do now/Walk away now, and you’re gonna start a war.” The song’s protagonist is seeking solace from the disappointed expectations of starting over while simultaneously offering warning, all of it over beautiful finger-picked guitar. It is the most singularly heartbreaking song on Boxer, but similarly devastating observations abound throughout the course of the album.
More than anything else, the understated emotional authority of the National at its best sets this band apart from the rest of the indie-rock scene. With Boxer, the National has fine-tuned its approach. No longer waving mallets and going for jugulars, the National’s latest album finds the band in mid-ascension on the path toward that higher plane to which all bands aspire.
Everybody loves a hook, but it seems the National has learned how to write a song. The imagery on Alligator combined with naked aggression and undeniable talent to put everyone on notice. Boxer takes everything one step further.
The National wasn’t sneaking up on anybody this time around. The band knew that, so it delivered an album full of moody, mature, consistently moving songs. A band to get involved with and then keep an eye on, the National simply will not be denied. Boxer makes such a move all but impossible anymore.