25 Masterworks – The National: Boxer
My Spin on Masterworks: 2 of 25
Beggars Banquet Records, 2007
The above phrase can be found inside the booklet that accompanies (the CD edition of) The National’s fourth album: their last full-length to be released via the Beggars Banquet label. Printed in stark white text, and superimposed over a blurry image of the band members wandering through a field, the phrase seems to announce itself as an epigram of sorts; perhaps a subheading for the title Boxer itself. (The phrase actually stems from a pair of lyrics from two separate songs in their discography: the former pulled from ‘Tall Saint’, and the later featuring on ‘Ada’.)
The reason I’ve started by drawing attention to this bit of trivia is because I’ve always found it particularly expressive of the near-mythic status which Boxer has grown to shoulder over the past seven years. It’s possibly the keystone album in The National’s existing discography; summative of the turning-point whereby the group sharpened its focus, and settled on a definitive sound which has since become their signature. The lyrical, tonal, and musical departures of Boxer have been augmented and elaborated in the group’s succeeding two albums, and the results have seldom been less than magical.
On a related note, I should mention that I could quite happily write essays for five of the six existing albums by The National, and still not exhaust everything I feel about the band. However, I’d argue that the richest arc in the band’s history spans the mid- to late-2000s, grounded most overtly in the shift in dynamics which took place between the release of their third and fourth albums. Both Alligator (2005) and Boxer (2007) are cut from similar cloth thematically, but if the former can be personified as a high-strung twenty-something howling his way life, Boxer is that album’s older brother: wearier, more reserved, sharper in perception but ultimately powerless. As such, although Alligator stands as a work of jagged magnificence, Boxer takes the crown, if only because its illusions of elegance are so furiously powerful. All the wine that was name-checked across its three predecessors has stopped fuelling energy, and started churning disappointment.
Although it branches off in a number of more specific subheadings, the main drive behind Boxer is a fixation with what it is to “grow up”. Such a theme may permeate the majority of the band’s oeuvre, but the concept of shouldering responsibility – and all the horror that entails – is particularly sharp in this collection. Yet even in spite of this apparently universal topic, there remains an air of mystery to Boxer; as with all the greatest albums, there’s an intensity rumbling beneath it: a sense that something significant has been registered in these twelve songs. It’s perhaps because of this that I’ve found myself obsessed with the ambiguity of the album’s title, and that “epigram”. Is the latter an urge for somebody to admit defeat (to “stay down”), or to feint weakness before delivering the killer blow?
It also deepens the discourse surrounding the record’s tortured conception. After the exhausting tours in support of Alligator, the group entered a frictional recording process, rife with frustration – at experimenting, at life’s hardships, and at each other. At the centre of the chain, all eyes were on Matt Berninger, who took painstaking time in carefully penning the new set of lyrics, which in turn forced the others to tinker with already tightly-ratcheted song mechanics. Such a drawn-out process resulted in an allegedly miserable and alienated period, which the Dessner brothers still seem keen to avoid discussing.
And the strain shows in the end product. The arrangements of Boxer sound hot and heavy, pressed down with a claustrophobia which wasn’t entirely present on the lurching Alligator. Naturally (this being The National), the songs themselves are inherently fidgety, but there’s an amplified itchiness driving the likes of ‘Brainy’ and ‘Ada’: a barely-restrained sense of fury which can be picked out of those cacophonous snare rolls and precariously-stacked guitar notes.
Possibly more so than any other National album, Boxer is a nocturne. The shiny city painted by ‘Fake Empire’ gleams in monochrome shades of black, white, and amber: a deceptively romantic sheen which is quickly swept away as night closes in. For all the opener’s poignant majesty, the real world that this album inhabits only properly reveals itself Bryan Devendorf’s elemental drums batter open ‘Mistaken for Strangers’. Sharply awakened from the dreamy stupor of ‘Fake Empire’, the reality becomes clear: this isn’t some Disneyfied “gay ballet on ice”. Such faux-glamour is simply a front for “another uninnocent elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults”. The Dessner siblings intertwine tangibly metallic guitar lines to growl beneath Berninger’s lament for the 9-to-5 shift. By the end of the song, we’re left in the dark, watching the lights glitter away in a muted fanfare of brass.
This inky blackness swirls through the whole of the record, manifesting itself in the muted despair of ‘Racing Like a Pro’, and the uneasy push-and-pull between jealousy and perversion which tars the hypnotic ‘Green Gloves’. The oppressive heat of the album’s first half only lifts long enough for ‘Slow Show’: the closest the band come to producing an anthem on Boxer, and an incredibly affecting portrayal of longing for intimacy. Steadily swelling from a refreshing appearance of acoustic guitars, it serves as a quietly triumphant shedding of Berninger’s armour, eschewing some of his more oblique mannerisms to cut straight to the heart of his awkward pangs of loneliness. Just check out the lyrics in the second verse:
Need to find somewhere I can stand and stay
I leaned on the wall; the wall leaned away
Can I get a minute of not being nervous
And not thinking of my dick?
On paper, the presence of such a crude allusion seems jarring, but as intoned through Berninger’s nervous baritone, it works perfectly as a descent into direct honesty. On ‘Slow Show’, nothing is dressed up: it’s a direct peer into Berninger’s insecurities, and consequently, makes for a deceptively powerful centrepiece. (And yeah, that’s a very real anxiety.)
Following its less elaborate – but more thematically unified – second half, the album concludes with the plaintive ‘Gospel’: a gentle, unassuming shuffle which only unveils its subtle, heartbreaking power to patient listeners. Grapeshot with painfully vivid scenes of domesticity, Berninger’s vocal melodies are particularly arresting, as they gracefully glide above his bandmates’ patient balladry. It’s a careful, warm touchdown, which closes itself with the album’s most fragile sentiment of all:
Darling, can you tie my string?
Killers are calling on me.
This final image is multifarious, and utterly devastating when properly unpacked. Dependency, yearning, an encroaching departure for some form of war (whether literal, or the battlefield of adulthood’s burdens); it’s all teed up in this final couplet. As Berninger murmurs the refrain one final time, the album fades with a soft sigh of resignation, tinged with the frailest (and cruellest) jot of hope.
No National album comes pre-packaged as a complete story, as Berninger has keenly emphasised during an interview for MOGvideos. Boxer is no different, but it somehow manages to coalesce into a cohesive assembly of small-but-significant moments which epitomise the shouldering of adulthood. The protagonists of Berninger’s fractured portraits are as confused and futile as we can all-too-frequently feel ourselves. These are people who fill themselves with quarters and embrace temporary highs. They fumble through conversations at parties while deeply craving more intimate connections. They build fake empires in their heads and dream of pleasures as simple as hanging up holiday rainbow lights.
And when they get knocked down, sometimes refusing to stay down is the hardest task imaginable.Boxer 1 Fake Empire 2 Mistaken for Strangers 3 Brainy 4 Squalor Victoria 5 Green Gloves 6 Slow Show 7 Apartment Story 8 Start a War 9 Guest Room 10 Racing Like a Pro 11 Ada 12 Gospel
Posted on January 28, 2014, in 25 Masterworks, The Music World and tagged 25 Masterworks, A Skin A Night, Alligator, Beggars Banquet, Boxer, Fake Empire, Gospel, Matt Berninger, Mistaken for Strangers, MOGvideos, Slow Show, The National. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.