Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Album Review: Boxer by The National

Walking down a deserted (but perpetually shimmering) Michigan Avenue in Chicago the other night, listening to The National's fourth full-length album in my iPod, it dawned on me that I had to review this, and that it would continue a trend of only reviewing music that I love. I promise to rectify this by finding a truly crap album and crushing it sometime in the next month. Until then, bask in the positivity, people.

The first thing that strikes me about Boxer is that it sounds a lot like my other favorite albums of 2007, yet remains wholly original. Lead singer Matt Berninger sounds a bit like Andrew Bird, both in style (baritone, slightly monotonous voice) and substance (non sequiturs, clever imagery, and an extensive vocabulary), which is an absolute compliment. Bird's Armchair Apocrypha was probably my favorite 2007 release until Elliott Smith's New Moon. And if the vocals sound like Bird, the overall feel and mood of the album call to mind a more subtle and contained version of the Arcade Fire release Neon Bible. Again, this is a good thing.

The problem with comparing one artist to another is that it implies a derivative quality to the work; that the band is somewhere between an inspired cherry-picker with great taste and a rogue musical pickpocket. Know that resorting to such comparisons is the fault of the reviewer and not the band. Explaining all of the positive ways that an album matches other great works is the lazy man's method for expressing admiration. And tonight I'm feeling a bit lazy. But now, on to the album.

Boxer starts out with a bang, as the track "Fake Empire" works its way from a simple, subdued little song into an orchestral gem that climbs higher and higher and then just ends, without any ostentatious outros or distorted samples loaded with feedback and reverb. It is followed by the most pure "rock" song on the album, the quick, smart "Mistaken For Strangers." At the tale end of this "wow, they sound like they could be from Montreal" indie rock anthem, The National slows things down just a bit, fading out of the second track and easing into "Brainy," giving the listener time to absorb the first salvo and settle into the experience. Rarely has the first quarter of an album shown such care in regard to pacing. It is as if the three members of this Brooklyn band know some secret to engaging the brain's alpha frequencies.

If there is one criticism of Boxer, it is that the middle of the album lags just a bit. "Squalor Victoria," "Green Gloves," and "Start a War" are the only songs that feel like work the first couple of times through. That said, even from this tiny negative comes a positive, as "Green Gloves" became one of my favorite tracks on repeat listens. The first time through it bleeds into the background, but by lap number four, it actually stands out as a beautiful song with soaring instrumentals and perhaps the most melodic chorus on the album. Likewise, "Start a War" grows on the listener and seems to get better with each passing bus ride and jog through the park. These are among the most subtle tracks on the album and for that reason, they were overshadowed the first few times by more powerful and melodic songs such as "Slow Show" and "Apartment Story." In fact, "Slow Show" probably gets the nod as my favorite song on the album. It is a rich, escalating tour de force. The repeating line "You know I've dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you" is one of the best on the album and the anchor of a fabulously good and decidedly mature (i.e., not cheesy) love song.

After slowly building for nine tracks, the album finishes with a quiet flurry. "Racing Like a Pro" shows some of Berninger's strongest writing, offering clear, intelligent commentary and showcasing some of his most insightful (if still cleverly spun) storytelling to date. "Ada" is a brilliant song and is certainly aided by Sufjan Stevens' guest appearance on piano. And "Gospel" might very well be the best song on the album.

I've already heard some listeners bemoan the lack of simmering anger that was a hallmark of previous tracks by The National (most of them from 2005's breakout critical darling Alligator), but to me, this more subtle expression of joy, pain, boredom, claustrophobia (multiple songs are contained to basically one room) is far more rewarding. Rather than spell everything out with wild vocal inflections or searing lyrics, The National opted to weave together a tight tapestry of music, within which they could embed their stories and philosophy. On Boxer, they let the audience do its share of the heavy lifting in a way that is not dissimilar to a well-written television show or film.

This is not to say that listening to this album is hard work, because it's not. The Boxer is a smooth listen and an atmospheric experience (you simply have to find a deserted main street in a big city and give this a spin) and - bottom line - a really great album. It should be Exhibit A on how to make really smart, meaningful music that still sounds terrific.

Once again, I've got a new favorite album for 2007. I expect this one to hold on to the title for a while. Especially once I get to reviewing some real pieces of crap.

The Score: 9.3

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