In May 2007 The National released their fourth album Boxer. Whilst it is true that a lot of bands kick-off their career with a completely defining debut album, it is not the case here. The National, from what I have read took a while to establish their sound. Their first album (self-titled), apparently has an alt-country feel. It is with the bold yet accessible Alligator (the bands third album) that they really found their feet – so much so some of the more left of centre ears find it their best album, which it isn’t. It’s Boxer. Well that’s my take anyway. Why? Well let me tell you.
Boxer has to date sold just over a quarter of a million copies worldwide. Whilst this sounds a lot it really isn’t for what may be the greatest band currently active worldwide and still releasing albums that could be considered their best. Have they peaked? No. Can they top Boxer? Yes they could. In fact both albums that follow Boxer (High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me 2010 & 2013 respectively) expand on Boxer and maintain the bands unique sound and charm. The last two mentioned albums could so easily crossover to truly huge proportions and get all U2 or Coldplay on everyone. This is why The National feel like one of musics best kept secrets and why they are such a treasure – and it is with Boxer that the band reach the listener with devastatingly beautiful body blows.
I would imagine the band are schooled, musically on a huge range of influences. With an average age of around 40 I would think they have digested post punk. Echoes of Joy Division wave through their beats and vocal delivery, yet they sound pretty much like no other band. One could reference Nick Cave, a truly individual artist, yet again The National have a wider appeal and somehow manage to maintain an air of total mystery. When I listen to The National the same thing always happens. I start off thinking, this is good but not that special, then the song, pretty much every song from their last 4 albums, builds to a powerful swelling crescendo of real musical beauty. Little things happen. A line I’ve never really noticed before becomes apparent and the talent of Matt Berninger as not only a lyricist, but singer subtlety hits home. Sometimes you smile, sometimes it’s more powerful and that incredible feeling of getting lost in the moment of the music takes over – not many bands can do this.
Boxer captures the band not at a peak (the band are still on the up), but at the moment when it all really works for The National for the first time. It’s the sound of dark triumph. That moment captured is something we all should be grateful for. In a parallel universe it would be an ideal debut album. Throughout it sounds modern yet totally timeless. It’s an album of dark vague powerful beauty. It’s songs will mean different things to different people. The record does not hold your hand, it does its own thing. You want to hold it closer as the awe of its charm reveals more and more. It is a record that reveals unknown parallels of human feeling. It reaches out to everyone and no one . It’s an exorcism and a love-in. Allow me to skirt through a few choice songs from Boxer. Remember, all killer, no filler.
Fake Empire is perfectly poised to open the album. All conquering sounds. The feeling of disinterested triumph. I feels almost political yet isn’t at all. Leonard Cohen post punk poetry that gives way to a rousing brass section. That swell begins. The piano, the freaking piano hits like a punk song as the gears of Fake Empire change. It build to a mass of dark brewing power.
Mistaken For Strangers and The National come into their very own for the very first time. It might be a personal ‘age’ thing but the lyric “You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends” resonates with the work life balance. The song darkly booms out what is important, yet what happens. Regrets and reality. The tone of the music fits the lyrics like a glove.
Squalor Victoria and Boxer has established a sound that Alligator didn’t or indeed couldn’t. It hits the listener. This is a body of work to be swallowed in one whole pill. The vague lyrics will resonate differently with every individual listener. One realises we are listening to a lyricist of Morrissey proportions here. The band have no natural leader and the whole sound encapsulates. Live this song is a beast which roars in a way the recorded album version, as excellent as it is, doesn’t.
Green Gloves and that Smiths sound I’ve suggested solidifies. The guitar scratching over the fretboard. Shave the beards off and there’s a Johhny Marr escaping. The song wavers over two light gears but it feels so much deeper.
Slow Show and Boxer shows its true hand. A hand of four carefully concealed aces. They lyrics flow like gold not for fools. Punches of reality. A love song with no peer. “You know I dreamed about you. For twenty-nine years before I saw you”. A song so fragile that you want to cradle it as it get to your very core. In parallel the music breaks, the drum patterns, pad it out so superbly, as it fades you yearn for it to continue. A mark of a truly great song.
Apartment Story is almost Slow Show part two. By now one is taking the music on Boxer for granted and the lyrics begin to take control. “Tired and wired, we ruin too easy. Sleep in our clothes and wait for winter to leave. Hold ourselves together, with our arms around the stereo for hours”. Again the drums pad out what is an overall deeply charming sound.
Guest Room goes back to what I mused over earlier. The National, they’re just have some decent songs?. That standard solid intro. Good but, y’now not amazing. Then that change in depth. That dreamy interlude. Soft but punching your gut in that fazing welcome disorientating way. The softest of ‘ooh, ooh oh oohs’ hit like warm damaging shovels. Berninger knows his work is done and leaves the instruments to ease the song out. Rarely has such a soft sounding song had the power to hit so hard.
Check out Boxer. You may like it. You may feel I’m just rambling. Whatever. It’s an album I hold close at the moment and I imagine for years to come. Crazy thing is they have better songs on later albums. But no album of theirs hits me like Boxer. Quite apt come to think of it…