I hesitate to discuss albums with an ‘obsessive’ perspective or in which one warrants ‘repeated’ listens, in part because I run the risk of potentially overusing hyperbolic language. Instead, my views are reserved when expressing such exuberance and enthusiasm about an artist, song, or album. In looking at music in such a skeptical, discerning manner, this approach has helped me to hone in on what music should or shouldn’t be perceived in this light.
That being said, I can say without any hesitation that The National’s Boxer (2007) has been an obsession of mine since shortly after its release a little more than two and a half years ago. And when I use obsession, I do not mean a flavor of the month, or a work that I was really into for a substantial amount of time. To simply put it, Boxer was a significant other, a best friend, a beyond-moving masterpiece that played a substantial role in my life for a several years. If you love music on a comparable level, then you know that mind-blowing, indescribable feeling that emerges from this type of album.
Now onto the hard part: describing why Boxer has such a personal allure.
Let’s start with “Fake Empire” and its ability to turn from the lonesome combination of lead singer Matt Berninger’s crooning vocals and Doveman’s Thomas Barlett on piano, into a slow build up featuring a warm brass orchestration. This song stands as an embodiment of melancholic warmth as Berninger makes a stab at reasoning his living in an often meaningless existence, where resigns himself to say “Turn the light, out say goodnight / No thinking for a little while / Let's not try to figure out everything at once.” Listening to this song, as well as the rest of the album, just makes sense. It makes this ‘fake empire,’ this confusing reality entirely relatable. Boxer resonates as part dark, part nervous; yet offers musical companionship through its reassurance.
Beyond Matt’s beautiful crooning, Bryan Devendorf’s drum mastery shines through every single track. His ability to be a pocket drummer while still having such power and complexity in his style stands out remarkably, as he possesses a concentrated intensity that sets the foundation for The National’s mysteriously tender sound. On tracks such as “Mistaken For Strangers” and “Squalor Victoria,” Devendorf deftly colors the music in a similar fashion to the way Berninger brings life to the lyrics—by adding an overflow of emotion and life into each beat. Add in Bryan’s brother Scott Devendorf, brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and a cast of auxiliary musicians; and Boxer become an Interpol-meets-Sufjan Stevens, chamber-pop-meets-post-punk ensemble.
And while the dynamic of Boxer’s first half spans a wide range, it gives way to a focused second part that may not catch your attention right off the first listen. But just wait, and it will. The three song relationship narrative of “Slow Show,” “Apartment Story,” and “Start a War” exhibits Berninger at his lyrical high-point (“do you really think you can just put it in a safe behind a painting, lock it up and leave / walk away now and you’re gonna start a war”). Sufjan Stevens appears on “Racing Like a Pro” and “Ada” as he contributes to two of Boxer’s slow-stirring captivators. And of course, my personal favorite “Gospel” closes the album in a heartfelt earnestness that very few songs can reach.
While all these songs and their respective qualities are enthralling in their own right, the beauty of Boxer is in the details—the riffs, the harmonies, the dissonances, the dynamic. Listening to The National is an experience in its own right—one that slowly grows on each passing listen. I guess that is what perpetuates my love affair with Boxer—its newfound subtleties that unveil itself time and time again.
More from the War on Pop's Decade in Review:
#6 TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain (2006)
#7 The Strokes - Is This It (2001)
#8 The Hold Steady - Separation Sunday (2005)
#9 Drive-By Truckers - Southern Rock Opera (2001)
#10 Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)
#11 My Morning Jacket - Z (2005)
#12 Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)
#13 Jay-Z - The Black Album (2003)
#14 Beirut - The Flying Club Cup (2007)
#15 Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings - Naturally (2005)
#16 Daft Punk - Discovery (2001)
#17 The Black Keys - Rubber Factory (2004)
#18 LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver (2007)
#19 Antony and the Johnsons - The Crying Light (2009)
#20 Common - Like Water For Chocolate (2000)
#21 Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (2008)
#22 Jens Lekman - Night Falls Over Kortedala (2007)
#23 Beach House - Devotion (2008)
#24 El-P - I'll Sleep When You're Dead (2007)
#25 Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009)