Walking down a deserted (but perpetually shimmering) Michigan Avenue in Chicago last spring, listening to The National's fourth full-length album in my iPod, it dawned on me that I was listening to my favorite album of the year up to the point. Driving down a deserted (well, deserted for L.A. standards) 10 freeway in Los Angeles last week on New Year’s Eve, listening to that same album in my prized 1990 Volvo, it dawned on me that I was still listening to my favorite album of the year.
And even though it is now a few days “too late” for such a column, I figured that in light of my decision to anoint Wu-Tang’s 8 Diagrams as the Hip-Hop Album of the Year, I might as well spend some time writing about my overall favorite record of 2007.
The first thing that always 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. 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 falls somewhere between an inspired cherry-picker with great taste and a rogue musical pickpocket. Just 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.