Brooklyn's band of brothers spins dark, sardonic songs about love and life, adorned with orchestral flourishes and aching with romantic desperation... an early bid for album of the year.
I am trying to stay cool here, but it's difficult. Boxer has just shouldered its brawny way to the top of my so-far-in-2007 list. Brooding, dark, hopelessly romantic, superlatively rock when it wants to be, and almost baroquely classical when it gets tired of that, this is an album to learn to love, track by track, play by play.
The National, for those who are just coming in, is comprised of two sets of brothers -- Bryce and Aaron Dessner, Scott and Bryan Devendorf -- and Matt Berninger (plus shadow member Padma Newsom). They met in their native Cincinnati in the early 1990s, then moved to Brooklyn. Following three releases on indie Brassland, the band made the leap to Beggars in 2005 with the wonderful Alligator, an album that extended their brooding, roots-derived but non-traditional sound to a much larger audience. A tour that year with super-hot Clap Your Hands Say Yeah followed, with more than one hipster writer wondering why CYHSY had captured all the hype when the National was clearly the better band. Two years later, the band has followed with Boxer, perhaps the best National album yet.
Boxer has the same slow-burning intensity as Alligator, built from glistening piano lines and big rock guitar chords and the murmuring deep tones of Matt Berninger's voice. Yet though these songs are instantly accessible, they are also unusually layered and complex. Consider "Fake Empire". It begins in a flourish of piano notes, and Berninger dropping casual observations about picking apples and lacing lemonade, and builds from there. There's a tempo change, then crazily intense mid-section with brass point and counterpoint and fractious joyful drums. Not every band could even get this down on tape, but the National makes it sound natural and unforced.
The rocking songs like "Brainy" and "Squalor Victoria" may leap out at your first, but it's the ruminative ones that burn into your cortex -- "Slow Show", "Start a War", and "Racing Like a Pro". Even on these slower songs, the drums have been turned up a notch, pulsing away in ritual cadences. "Slow Show", one of the album's best cuts, has a galloping rhythm under it, making its doomed romantic lyrics seem somehow more significant, more effortful. It's the sort of song that ought to be too mushy, too over-the-top. Yet somehow the words "And though I dreamed about you / For 29 years before I met you", paced by plaintive piano and pounding tom toms, feel real and true and even unadorned. Even hardened cynics who never fall for these things (yes, over here) will find themselves repressing a sigh.
As before, the National's secret weapon is Padma Newsom, the Aussie classico behind Clogs (a band that also includes Bryce Dessner). "Fake Empire" bears, perhaps, the most obvious traces of his influence, breaking into its post-classical brass quartet past the halfway mark, but the subtle warmth of strings, the edgy commentary of orchestral instruments is everywhere. The lovely "Racing Like a Pro" has some of the same baroque guitar complexity as Clogs' "Kapsburger", fluttering against a slow build of brass. It is all the more powerful because you never say "Oh, there's a bit of classical guitar! How interesting." The additional instruments and textures slip effortlessly into the songs.
Lyrics are imagistic, but powerful, always seeming to mean more than they actually say. As in Alligator, there are phrases here that stick, almost immediately, in the lizard layer of your brain, their meaning somehow both obscure and obvious. "Walk away now / And you're going to start a war", becomes a mantra more than a song lyric, something whose whole import can't quite be contained in the meanings of the words in it.
All these elements -- the warmth and humanity and musical complexity, the indelible images and koan-like puzzles, the guitar-based rock and classical embellishments -- go a certain distance in explaining why Boxer is so good... but they don't quite explain it. This album, like all great albums, somehow transcends all the factors that makes it work, absorbs them in a seamless whole and breaks your heart in the process. All hail Boxer, the album to beat for the rest of the year.