Beautifully brooding, The National's fourth album, Boxer, is the kind of record that sneaks up on you. First listen, you're intrigued. Second, you're interested. By the sixth spin or so you're swaying around the room half in love with the sounds coming out of the stereo.
Boxer follows up the success of The National's 2005 disc, Alligator — which Uncut magazine called "their first masterpiece". Hints of bands like Interpol, Tindersticks and Arcade Fire adorn their tracks, but they're carving out a niche of their own. Warm yet anxious, spartan of voice yet full of sound and telling turns of phrase, Boxer is a moody delight.
The National's members are originally from Ohio but since moved to New York. Lead singer Matt Berninger's burly baritone voice has echoes of Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen, with a hint of the 1980s dark punk of Joy Division. It's the sound of late-night despair and regrets. I'm not a huge "drum sound" man, but I was struck by the fierce and crackling drumbeats of Bryan Devendorf. Devendorf's drums have that in-your-face, tin-foil crash of '80s new wave but can also summon up a numbed subtlety. His brother Scott also provides guitar, while another set of brothers, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, fill out the band's lush sound.
Album opener "Fake Empire" starts with Berninger's lonesome voice and a drifting piano, and blooms into something orchestral and grand indeed, wringing hope out of the shadows. It's the first sign you're entering an album of marvelous depths. The superb "Mistaken For Strangers" has a dance-rock pulse that evokes New Order, and some of Berninger's most biting lyrics; "You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends/ when you pass them at night under the silvery, silvery citibank lights/ arm in arm in arm and eyes and eyes glazing under/ oh you wouldn’t want an angel watching over/ surprise, surprise they wouldn’t wannna watch/ another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults".
"Apartment Story" showcases the gauzy insight of Bernringer's lyrics, painting a portrait of a battered, down-but-not-quite-out relationship with acute detail. "Start A War" isn't a political screed as you might expect from the title, but another perfectly chiseled moment of heartbreak – "walk away now and you're gonna start a war," Berninger murmurs. Indie-pop icon Sufjan Stevens turns up to play piano on the ethereal "Ada," with its wry, catchy refrain of "Ada don’t talk about reasons why you don’t want to talk about reasons why you don’t wanna talk."
Usually the press releases that come with new albums for review are filled with clichés, but one phrase used in material that came with Boxer leaps out – The National calls their music "'a euphoric disconnection,' the lovely delusion that sets in after too much dulling reality, too much time away, and losing touch with friends." I like that.
The melancholy that haunts Boxer may keep it from being the sort of album that grabs you instantly, but the fervent heart and melody lets it sink into your head and grow roots.