In 2005, The National's Alligator snuck up on me quickly -- to quote Robyn Hitchcock, "exactly like a crocodile, in search of a mirage across the undulating sand" -- and chewed its way squarely into the top slot of my "best of the year" list. Alligator delivered on a promise prior albums had only hinted at, and revealed the band as near, if not full, equals with the very best of their impressive influences.
As the release date (prior to the leak, anyway) for that record's follow-up approached, fans began nervously debating whether The National could possibly repeat their previous success. Boxer leaves no doubt, however, that any such worry was for naught.
When The National recently opened for Arcade Fire in Atlanta, they played to a crowd that seemed relatively unfamiliar with their work and on a stage poorly configured for their presentation. Only those who paid close attention would have been able to manage a glimpse of the bands' true power; power which is on ample display on the new record.
Boxer is a study in melancholia, set against lush and richly produced acoustic and electric guitar, piano, subtle orchestration, and some of the best drumming in recent memory. (Remember how good the drums sounded on October? The drums on Boxer are reminiscent of that). Lead singer Matt Berninger's boozy baritone swaggers through late night cityscapes and conjures the sound of a defeated contender. The songs are haunted by dreams unrealized, effortlessly rendered in downbeat poetry. Simply put, The National's lyrics may be about the best around these days: "Underline everything/I'm a professional in my beloved white shirt/I'm going down among the saints."
Although Boxer may lack the immediate catchiness of some of Alligator's standout tunes like "Mr. November," it is more consistent in the dark mood created across the course of the record, and more expertly played and produced. I expect some may be turned off by the depressive chord Boxer strikes, but those folks will be missing out. This record is something close to a masterpiece.
MP3: The National - "Mistaken For Strangers" from Boxer
YouTube: "Mistaken For Strangers"