f you're the type that thinks every album title has its reasons, think back to the titular character of the first Rocky movie. It's easy to forget that even though Rocky Balboa became a hero by taking Apollo Creed's beatings for a full fifteen rounds, he still lost. Since their humble debut in 2001, the National have progressively gotten better at conveying this uneasy sense of moral victory. Even the parts of 2005's outstanding Alligator that did sound like triumph ("All the Wine," "Mr. November") were actually drunken, delusional pep talks going on in the basement of Matthew Berninger's brain. Shit, these guys are such underdogs that their biggest PR coup was playing to half-empty venues because concertgoers rarely stayed past their opening act.
But 2005 was a good time to be associated with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and those who bothered with the headliner created a contact buzz that saw Alligator, a grower if there ever was one, being championed long after its release date and making Boxer one of 2007's most anticipated records. The National is clearly a band on the verge right now, but if they do blow up, it'll be the result of others coming to them instead of the other way around. Boxer is a National album through and through but blessed with a restraint and self-assuredness of a band on top of its game, resulting in a startling masterpiece on par with Turn on the Bright Lights, Bows & Arrows, or any other austere tribute to urban alienation you care to name. Paradoxically, it’s an agoraphobic piece of art that you'll want to share with everyone you know.
It’s easy to tell where Berninger’s head is at from the first hook of the record, one of the many that sound instantly quotable from the moment they hit the microphone. “We’re half awake in a fake empire,” he moans and it’s abundantly unclear whether he’s talking about a doomed human interaction or America’s relationship with the rest of the world. Berninger has a way of conflating both the personal and political to the point where you realize it's foolish to think that the two could ever be separated. “Walk away now and you’re gonna start a war,” he warns but it’s not just a simple metaphor for two parties battling in a blood feud. As the accompaniment becomes more regal and resigned, it becomes evident that there are far darker shades in his choice of words in 2007, i.e, the consideration of just how many casualties you’re willing to endure before you realize a cause is lost.
Due to Berninger’s boozed-out baritone, just about every National review evokes barfly imagery, but most of Boxer can’t even manage to make it out of the house. "Apartment Story." "Guest Room." Indoors music. Those that manage to get out are “mistaken for strangers by your own friends when you pass in the night under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights” before Berninger drops the death blow: “well you wouldn’t want an angel watching over / Surprise, surprise—they wouldn’t want to watch.” Uplifting? Of course not, but Berninger makes it joyously addictive with his expert lyricism. His arsenal is unmatched, alternating literal gut-punches ("Sometimes you bake a cake or something / Sometimes you stay in bed"), skewed imagery ("Everything you say is swirling / Everything you say has water under it"), cheeky romanticism ("Hold ourselves together with our arms around the stereo for hours / While it sings to itself or whatever it does") and as he puts it, "30% silly lyrics" ("Standing at the punch table swallowing punch"). Look, maybe it isn't Ian Curtis that Paul Banks has been doing a pale imitation of all along.
Small quibbles have been made that Boxer has nothing in the vein of “Abel” or “Mr. November” where the slow brewing anger boils over, but Berninger’s toned-down approach has been more than made up for by his backing band of brothers. The National weren’t exactly sloppy when they tried to bring the rock action, but they certainly could stand to lose a few pounds. Two years of intensive touring has applied the scalpel and their rhythm section is absolutely diesel on the 43 musclebound minutes of Boxer. "Mistaken for Strangers" and "Brainy" are corrosive but ingratiating, backing up Berninger's loopy melodies with little more than spiny, corrugated behind-the-bridge picking and brick-solid godbody drumming from Bryan Devendorf.
Boxer is seamless (particularly during the nearly orchestral final quarter), sympathetic with the band to the point of telepathy. Check out the progression of selling points on "Fake Empire": Sufjan Steven's loping piano chords, Berninger's face-to-face vocal pleadings, a stately bass pulse that runs through the record, the rope-a-dope drum rhythm and finally, exploding into a revelry of horn and strings. Album centerpieces "Green Gloves" and "Slow Show" both start off like the most accurate snapshot of loneliness; Berninger pleads that "all my friends are somewhere getting wasted," before he wishes to get inside their lives and love their loves. And as he acknowledges "now I hardly know them" and ruing a dream he's chased for 29 years, his melancholy becomes more epic and widescreen with expertly employed reverb and subtle feedback.
During a live performance, I heard someone drunkenly remark from the bar, “Hey, is this the band House is in?” With his gangly frame and five-day beard, Berninger does share a certain resemblance to Hugh Laurie's character, as well as being a self-medicating, misanthropic genius with an impeccable taste for poisonous one-liners. But it goes deeper than that—I think back to Derek Miller likening Arcade Fire to “Grey’s Anatomy,” which is becoming more of a tragic truth as they're increasingly relying on transparent emotional manipulation by way of easy melodrama. "House" and the National have become stronger because they put far more trust in the audience. The protagonists may be sad sacks, but they don't beg for your pity or martyrdom on the battlefield of modern love. They realize that, most of the time, there's no voyeuristic appeal in your troubles. It's honest. It's real life.
There's a lot to suggest that these guys will spend the upcoming months jockeying for position in year-end Top Tens and being the latest crush amongst indie-leaning Hollywood celebrities, a potentially worrying development for a band that seems to derive power from a "best kept secret" status. But if 2007 ends up being the year the National finally achieve real triumph, there's no reason to root against it. After a stunning achievement like Boxer, no band deserves it more.