Sometimes there is only so much music that one person can absorb. A close friend insisted that I hear the National. He was all ready to take me to the Bowery Ballroom show but I had other obligations. He did bring me a signed CD of “Boxer” their latest release. So I made time to listen. It turned out to be a worthwhile time investment.
Boxer is the second release from The National on the Beggars Banquet label; it is the follow-up to their 2005 critically acclaimed Alligators. The band members are Aaron Dessner bass / guitar, Bryce Dessner / guitar, Scott Devendorf / guitar, Bryan Devendorf / drums and Matt Berninger / vocals and songsmith. The Australian composer Padma Newsome ( Clogs ) did the orchestration and horn arrangements and Sufjan Stevens was the guest pianist.
The National’s Boxer is grown up music and I don’t mean easy listening. The sound of Boxer is moody, poetic and smart. It is orchestral pop at its best and is for ears that listen. Lyrically the song structure present scribbling of observations mixed with word associations that form pictures and clues about thematic concepts. The first track "Fake Empires" starts with piano, vocals and bass. About midway the drum rolls in and the texture of the horn section arrives in the backdrop. Suddenly the sonic sounds swell and soar as Matt sings / as we fade away in our fake empire /, ending on a single abrupt note.
Matt Berringer’s seductive bedroom voice has presence and surprising tonal diversity. The haunting nature of the vocals and drums are in the forefront of most tracts, and tucked in the background is the layering of instruments that rise gloriously persuasively calling. Enveloping the lyrical entries are the lush qualities of the guitar scaffolding, cascading piano segments, subtle brass arrangements and discriminating cello that breath through the steady pulse of drum beats. The drums are beating time rather then keeping time, reflecting moments that are captured in thought. They march forward with a steady tin beat, and pulsate like a life source. Steadily pumping on through life’s intricate moments and messy quandaries.
The lyrics pose a thematic approach on two fronts. The songs "Fake Empires", "Racing Like a Pro", "Mistaken for Strangers" and "Squalor Victoria" present the premise that youthful ideals are often compromised by work and money. The professionals in white shirts, the showered blue blazers that fill with quarters or the mourning of the glowing young ruffian appear in dumbstruck predicaments. Captured in lyrics like / another un-innocent / elegant fall into the un-magnificent lives of adults /. Often the mediocrity of adult life is unfortunate.
The other songs like "Brainy", "Slow Show", "Apartment Story", "Ada" and "Start a War" deal with contemporary adult sexuality and the complexities of relationships. Among the familiar household references like bedrooms, television, magazines and stereos the story-lines unfold. In "Slow Show" a man's vulnerability is exposed as he anticipates coming home to put on a playful show and admitting / I know I’ve dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you /. Relationships get complicated in "Start a War" because they / expected something / something better than before /. Weary lovers need to step away.. / walk away now / your gonna start a war /. In a world corrupted by pop culture "Apartment Story" describes a couple caught up in a “rosy minded fuzz”, willing to indulge their superficial attractions, that are fleeting and will / stay inside till somebody finds us / do whatever the TV tells us / we’ll be alright / we have our looks and perfume on /. Deception can only be covered up temporarily.
Boxer is appropriately titled and it authentically represents the struggle to adapt to adulthood while trying to understand and come to terms with it’s many pitfalls. The cohesive and layered music is intricately built to stand up. Strongly the pulsating rhythm meticulously beats while orchestration soars and expands in a moody seductive mix. I'm hooked.
The National Myspace
The National Daytrotter Sessions
National on Letterman