When did rock music get so beautiful again? Yeah, It had something to do with folks getting sick of garage rock (White Stripes aside) and critics never forgetting the heartbroken punk of Joy Division. But it also came from the alt country invasion of the 1990s, the dawning of Wilco World and the success of such over-played buggers as U2 and Coldplay.
But really, the fusion of rock and, gosh darn it, gorgeousness, has gotten pretty pervasive of late, with dudes like Andrew Bird and groups like our dear, overhyped Arcade Fire. But I'd argue that the masters of the Rock Can Be Pretty Without Being Awful movement are Brooklyn outsiders the National. If you like moody, wry rock, I dare you not to fall in love with this record. It trumps Wilco, and it makes Interpol look chilly and terribly detached from the real world.
I came to The National's game, like so many people, with 2004's "Alligator". (Buy it now, really.)
And I love these guys when they rock, like they do on that album, and which they don't do that much of here. But the Nats do show perhaps a stronger, trickier skill on "Boxer:" the ability to musically experiment without coming off like a band at war (hi Jeff Tweedy!), the ability to fuse rock and folk without sounding like wusses, the jujitsu to channel a mournful-yet-upbeat sound that somehow brings to mind a 30something everyman. (In songs like the stalkerish "Brainy," you're unsure if you should hug lead singer Matt Berninger or issue a restraining order against him.)
"Mistaken for Strangers" is "Boxer"'s showiest number. A jangly, dual guitar-driven anthem about being out of touch with your peeps, it manages to be both danceable and a bit depressing, which is part of the band's appeal.
But not surpisingly, it's the slower numbers on this CD that wedge themselves in your brain. Take "Ada," a dark, hypnotic trope about a demanding woman, or "Slow Show,' a song of wished-for domestic tranquilty that'd make anyone want to hurry home to Berninger. Drums spiral in and out of time signatures, Berningers sleepy-yet-sexy baritone slings ironic lyrics of relationships gone wrong and right, and all seems both right and terribly sad with the world.