I’m not sure why I keep listening to this. The more I listen, the sadder I get. I also don’t know why anyone would need alcohol to drown their sorrows when there are far more effective depressants like the National that don’t wage war on the liver.
My first attentive encounter with Boxer came in late January, after laying down for a quick afternoon rest. The expected exhaustion of the first few weeks of the semester must have gotten the best of me, and I awoke as the darkness of night had descended upon my bedroom, and the opening piano chords of “Start a War” began trickling through my computer’s speakers. The “shuffle” button on iTunes must have had it in for me, because as if waking up to darkness after falling asleep in daylight isn’t depressing enough, having a vaguely sympathetic-sounding baritone walk you through your worst breakup like the Ghost of Christmas Past is absolutely brutal. I’m sure the circumstances that surrounded my introduction to Boxer and, subsequently, the National, were out of the ordinary (being stricken with despair and almost literally paralyzed by unprovoked feelings of hopelessness), but I would wager a kidney that there’s at least someone else out there in Internetland that has found some sort of solace, or at least commiseration in Boxer.
Through the wonder of that fate-driven contrivance known as the iTunes “shuffle” option, Boxer emerged for me in an obviously unorthodox fashion. Start a War was just the beginning, though its lush arrangement and paradox of calming vibes with an often restless urgency proved to be a recurring forte for the National in Boxer. “Fake Empire” followed suit, with a cinematic piano intro and gorgeous brass-led outro that sandwich a vexingly ambiguous storyline. Arguably the most tranquil of compositions comes via “Gospel,” whose meandering melody floats like the Beatles, and whose simple request of “Darling can you tie my string?” rolls off the tongue like that of a less suggestive Jim Morrison. Given such an introduction to the National that featured only the band’s works most akin to audio black velvet, discovering that the band was also capable of perfecting a style of jarring post-punk in the tradition of forerunners like Joy Division and the Chameleons and de facto contemporaries like Heavens was unexpected to say the least.
For each track like “Gospel” and “Slow Show” that saunter by unassumingly, there are those like “Brainy,” “Apartment Story” and “Mistaken for Strangers,” the album’s first single, that pack a danceable post-punk punch, without ever sacrificing the excruciatingly disconsolate overtones of the more balladic numbers. What’s even more surprising, however, is how disarmingly simple many of the conventions used by the National actually are. While the layered, multi-textured arrangements mustn’t be taken for granted, the plethora of subtle hooks and oddly practical lines coalesce for effectiveness, as vocalist Matt Berninger speaks more with his voice than his words. Verses like “Sometimes you get up and bake a cake or something / Sometimes you stay in bed / Sometimes you go 'la di da di da di da da' / 'Til your eyes roll back into your head” look ridiculous on paper, but within the context of the song (“Racing Like a Pro”) make perfect sense.
It was the National's 2005 effort, Alligator, that first gained wide critical acclaim and served as a “breakout” of sorts for the Brooklyn ensemble. But for whatever great things have been said about Alligator, Boxer leaves it in the dust. The painstakingly arranged compositions, the heart-wrenching melodies and the implausibly simple-but-effective lyricism combine in perfect measure to craft a modern classic in the form of Boxer.