Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Boxer by The National

To look at the cover of The National's new record, Boxer, is to catch a glimpse of both the album's essence, and its antithesis. On one hand, the washed-out black and white, the half-closed eyelid through which we view it and the lack of energy of the image's participants which belies the thorough, restrained enjoyment they're clearly all experiencing could not convey any better the music contained therein. Restraint, of course, being the key word in regards to Boxer. Gone is much of the welling anger that pervaded the previous release, Alligator, which, on occasion, bubbled over the rim into a cathartic explosion of mythic proportions.

That's not to say that Boxer lacks catharsis. In fact, it is the cover's outgoing nature which represents the antithesis of the record, for Boxer is positively agorophobic. An indoors album. Away from crowds of dancing septogenarians. And with track titles like 'Guest Room' and 'Apartment Story', it's little wonder. Singer Paul Beringer's sonorous baritone dominates proceedings here, gently easing out lyrical gems like "Hold ourselves together with our arms around the stereo for hours / While it sings to itself or whatever it does", or 'Standing at the punch table swallowing punch". It is through Beringer's very presence on the record that catharsis still exists, hidden, perhaps, behind Bryan Devendorf's insistent drumming and Bryce Dessner's glorious Spanish guitar, which suffered on Alligator from the more volumnious efforts of his bandmates.

Opening track, the stunning 'Fake Empire' muses ambiguously on either the state of a dying relationship or the state of the US of A "We're half asleep/In a fake empire", building slowly over a jumpy, nervous staccato piano piece, while the urgent drumming and stately bass line gently direct the song towards is gorgeous, understated, horn-driven finale. From there, Boxer barely misses a beat, taking the listener both languidly and apprehensively through to the sweet closer, 'Gospel', where Beringer sounds almost nostalgic for a time when he was comfortable hanging around inside dreaming about spending time with friends who he may or may not have been ambivalent about.

Boxer is the sound of a band on top of its game, a stately, beautiful, if slightly moribund epic which cannot serve but reassure those who were concerned about the likelihood of a repeat after the wonder of Alligator.

4 1/2 stars

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