Tuesday, November 11, 2008

REVIEW: The National's "Boxer"

There is a very good chance that you, along with what I understand were about 71 million others, have heard The National before. The first song from this, their second album, was played in its entirety just before a victorious Obama walked to the podium this week, along with footage of the world he will, it appears, create (don't follow this link if you want to keep a clear mind about the band!).

Writing about a song that has been vetted until entirely harmless by a legion of political think tanks is not an appetizing prospect. I feel the need to claim that I (honestly) had the album playing in my car for weeks before it entered that kind of public domain. I say this not only to ensure you think me un-swayed in my musical judgment by my own political hysteria during this great, GREAT week, but also to try to convince myself that I'm always just ahead of the musical pack.

"A likely story," you retort.

Regardless, my job now is not to make myself look a little more 'in with the kids' (how could I be any more so), but to recover what I can of The National's potential from the ravages of political sterility. The National, whether you voted, whether you cared, whether you cried, whether you wrung your hands, are still a band you should love.

Love at least, in this incarnation. The band's eponymous first album is more Wilco than Interpol (perhaps apt, as they are keen to tell their story of relocating from the mid-west to NYC), and rather less engaging for that. When "Boxer" opens though, with the aforementioned "Fake Empire" track, they give us something remarkable. Matt Berninger's voice rumbles to us softly, as a series of close to false starts, first in drums and then in horns, make the rising melody seem both frail and a little hysterical. I can't stop listening to that fragile, breaking, song.

There are other highs too, in “Slow Show” for example, where Berninger tells us prosaically that he dreamed about his love for 29 yrs before he met him/her/it, and I believe him. The lyrics in general make me slightly weaker than I was. Verses like "Falling out of touch with all my/ friends are somewhere getting wasted/ hope they’re staying glued together/ I have arms for them,” from “Green Gloves,” sit tearfully with the loss I feel at my distance from others.

In case I seem to be a little overwhelmed by all this poignant, touching music, I want to say that “Boxer” is not the best album I’ve ever heard. It’s not even the best album this year. But it manages something impressive enough to have it stand out above many others: Even though it has in part been employed (sorry to democrats who might resist the notion) to manipulate, I’m happy to let it have it’s way with me over and over again.

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