I wasn't sure I liked this album when I first got it in 2007; in truth, I think I wasn't ready for it.
Since their 2001 debut, The National have become one of the most compelling bands in indie rock. Fortunately for those of us who are paying attention, their most recent album, "Boxer," is perhaps their strongest--and certainly their most adventurous. It's great to hear a band committed to both honing their strengths and expanding upon them. Bryan Devendorf's drumming is an incredible propulsive force; it makes the music ebb and flow like a surging, swirling ocean, a dark sea of melancholy that somehow manages to be both depressing and energetic at the same time. And again, Matt Berninger's voice floats atop, memorable and vulnerable, funny and sad.
That voice, and its relationship to the rest of the music, have changed quite a bit. On "Alligator," he was mixed more clearly; he may have been adrift on the stormy seas, but his voice rose above the noise, telling us what we needed to hear but didn't want to, over and over again. Here, he's sometimes almost drowned out by the music. Still, the effect is arresting and compelling, distant but haunting, like watching a YouTube video of someone slipping beneath the waves.
Yet we root for him, for when his lyrics are clear, it's apparent that his stories are our stories, his struggles, ours. Berninger paints relationships like Monet paints haystacks--exhaustively, with an eye for subtle shading and changes in atmosphere and mood that others would find mundane. On "Apartment Story," he chronicles what sounds like an alcoholic codependent relationship, one where a couple ends up holed up in an apartment like shipwreck survivors on a deserted island, seeking solace in mutual isolation, relying on the sterile quasi-humanity of technology to avoid the brutality of actual human interaction. "We'll stay inside `till somebody finds us, do whatever the T.V. tells us, stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz," he says. And yet, on the next song, it seems like he and his lover are recoiling from the claustrophobia of their self-imposed exile; he's telling someone: "We 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." Throughout the album, there are similar pictures, tense and angry, funny and sad. It feels personal enough to be authentic, but general enough that you can relate to it.
The National have been likened to Bruce Springsteen; his grandiose soundscapes are clearly an influence, and they covered "Mansion on the Hill" on their "Virginia" EP. But their music feels more authentic to me, in that they speak not to blue-collar life, but to white-collar people who live a bleak, black life in which the paths to happiness--through work or romance or politics or oblivion--are murkier than ever. Radiohead's "OK Computer" and "Kid A" and Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" are often cited as emblematic records of this generation; "Boxer" (and its predecessor, "Alligator") deserve a place alongside them. All in all, they paint an unforgettable picture of post-millenial life, of Americans "half awake in our fake empire," searching for meaning in relationships and looking for feeling in alcohol, but finding tensions and frustrations that mirror those in the confusing angry world outside.