Catching The National opening up for The Arcade Fire earlier in the month, a wretchedly drunken woman talking over the clamor of the quintet hollered to her companion, “Well obviously The Arcade Fire will be louder than this.” She probably hasn’t the faintest clue as to just how wrong she was. Or how quickly she’d cause a breathalyzer to malfunction.
The National are the kind of loud that’s more akin to the screaming in your head that won’t subside. They’re the dark side of the law (law in this case referring to relationships, the post-college daze, the working world, a.k.a. ‘the laws of growing up’). Not to say they’ve never had any conventionally loud moments. Admirers of their two previous sets of output, Alligator and Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, have “Available”s and “Mr. November”s to clamor behind. But returning spectators and new ones alike won’t find those moments here in the mellow depths of the Ohio-bred band’s fourth full-length release, Boxer. And they might be tempted to mourn the loss, but it would be a mistake. The National pack quite a wallop into the quiet numbers, and the penchant they’ve built up for pulling on heartstrings is still intact. Call it a somber number, but don’t label it weak. Boxer is the band’s most unified and affective grouping of songs.
Lyrically, something’s dulled within the compositions in the shift from Alligator. It’s probably less of the music’s fault, and the blame is shouldered more to that of the subject matter. It’s exceedingly melancholy and for a reason: the flashes of lyrical brilliance from Alligator rested in the few remaining wistful recollections of youth and past glories. Any hope for a resurgence of vitality has been left behind by the time Boxer hits. And it still hits hard, if not harder, because it has no qualms about its place in the daily grind of the sad, unfair universe. Unlike the casual identifying in Alligator, one would have to be in a pretty dark place to fully relate to Boxer. Vocalist Matt Berninger is battling some grimy, nebulous shit. Empathy is difficult to fully realize in a situation such as this, but the strength of Berninger and the band’s recorded performance is that you can still feel the aches and pains regardless.
(Side notes about borrowing and self-reference: “Slow Show” borrows lyrics from “29 Years,” “Gospel” from “Karen,” “Racing Like A Pro” from “Minor Star of Rome,” “Black Slate” (“Mistaken For Strangers” B-side) from “Keep It Upstairs.” Recurrence and monotony like a bad dream. Moments are blending together not just across the album’s fold, but across the band’s entire oeuvre. A lot can be said for Boxer’s ability to maintain a steady, cohesive glue to its sound while still remaining distinctive. Give them a couple more albums and we’ll be able to trace a broad thread across each gap.)
Funny enough: the gloomier it gets, the sweeter it sounds. The band never makes the heartache feel like a labor. They’ve always been more than proficient, but now they make it appear effortless. Strings, horns, and keys cluster about in the mix, bringing “Fake Empire” and “Ada” to their apexes. Showing up again in “Squalor Victoria” over break-beat piston-pumping, the strings and keys flesh out where the guitars would have been. The old workings are still held down pat: “Apartment Story” is one of the album’s best, static guitar punctuating Berninger’s deep, gravelly ‘la-la’s. Nothing else like “Mistaken For Strangers” exists on the album, and it wouldn’t have been at all out of place on 2005’s gut-punching release.
It’s a parasitic form of music that The National dwells within. It leeches onto the listener’s brain, sticking both of them into permanent symbiosis. It creeps, crawls, and shambles, infecting all in its wake. Zombies couldn’t have created these melodies, but it’s that sort of mindless state it leaves its audience in. And we don’t want brains; we want songful solace. It’s music to get mournful with, but as addicting as car crashes. If The National don’t blow up after this time up to bat, the joke is a bad one. Alligator was a declaration of intent and bombast, Boxer is the refinement of.