The National – Boxer
Released May 21st, 2007 on Beggars Banquet
Boxer was the breakthrough for one of indie rock’s most cherished bands, and it was also a personal vindication for the band itself. They had gotten together near the end of the Dot Com era in New York and had started recording with stars in their eyes. Their first tour, however, found them playing to scant crowds, in some cases just to the staff of the venue. Six years and three albums later, they were the buzz band du jour in the indie world, selling out shows and receiving a great critical feting. The albums in that lead-up process were stellar, but Boxer transcends them by simply perfecting what they already do. The National do a few things and they do them exceedingly well.
In lesser hands these would be mopey bar songs, like a garage band that’s just graduated to doing Cure covers in the local dive. Instead, the Dessner brothers craft arrangements that step lightly through the wreckage of breaking relationships and fill out the corners without being oppressive about it. The intro of “Fake Empire” shows off the skills of Aaron Dessner particularly: he’s figured out how to make playing two different rhythms in two different times on two different hands sound as natural as a simple 4/4 melody. The rhythm section, anchored on Bryan Devendorf’s quick wrists, gives these songs a serious heft that propel them out of any potential light-rock mix-station hell. The drums on Boxer are in fact a hidden weapon, striking when you least expect it on first listen and lifting up the dynamics of a song all on their own. They give “Ada” a hurry-along quality that keeps the riot of strings, pianos, and gorgeously fingerpicked guitar intact and impactful. Then, of course, there is Matt Berninger’s classic baritone voice, a mournful, wryly sorrowful instrument that emotes even the sometimes obscurely literate lyrics, like Leonard Cohen without the Eighties cheese trap he fell into. It’s a voice like straight whiskey and mahogany bars, singing about desperate husbands and teetering loves with the air of one with a lifetime of unfortunate experience.