Beggars Banquet Records, 2007
REVIEW BY: Jedediah Pressgrove
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/02/2010
I wouldn’t ever care to sound as depressed as The National, and I mean that as a compliment. A virtually humorless rock band can put you in a better mood, assuming that you’re looking for melancholy that exceeds your own. I don’t listen to Boxer during fast, easy, or fun living.
This is not to say one should approach Boxer expecting to hear whiny bullshit. Lead singer/songwriter Matt Berninger, a distinguished baritone, is more pensive and mysterious than maudlin, but his lyrics concern human conditions that many would sweep under a rug in order to avoid discomfort. His stories are hazy and provocative. There are multiple interpretations for any given track, but the songs have the familiar odor of life and struggle.
The National has a distinct sadness ingrained in its sound – precisely why the horn outburst in “Fake Empire” is ironic and uplifting (there’s not another moment quite like this on Boxer, sweet and long gone after the first track). But one band member doesn’t resemble the others: drummer Bryan Devendorf. I would argue his driving and dynamic style makes The National more listenable than they would be otherwise. Without Devendorf, a listener might get bogged down in the darkness.
But Devendorf does play a smaller role on a few tracks. In fact, you won’t hear him during “Racing Like A Pro,” the most powerful song on the album (thanks in no small part to Sufjan Stevens’ beautiful piano, which also graces “Ada”). “Racing Like A Pro” is a rumination on loss of youth (“One time you were a glowing young ruffian”) and ennui (“Sometimes you go la-di-da-di-da-di-da-da / ’Til your eyes roll back into your head”), with a heartbreaking refrain (“You’re dumbstruck, baby”). The song is a depressing tour de force, and I love every part of it.
Another brilliant song, “Slow Show,” is characterized by a moody Western tone. One of its lines is notably blunt: “Can I get a minute of not being nervous / And not thinking of my dick?” Berninger’s delivery is particularly mumbled throughout “Slow Show,” suggesting that the song is a drunken confession.
In Boxer, Berninger’s characters are fighting through life. Perhaps these stories should urge us to keep getting up ourselves, but even if we don’t, having such miserable company is underrated decadence.