The National works out of a dour stoicism- a nervous, crackling energy that spits just beneath the surface of its slow, grinding majesty. The music could easily be considered dull and lifeless by a clueless, casual listener. But anyone with an ear for the haunting splendor of, say, Joy Division will recognize like-minded individuals at work here, though in a slightly altered context. Matt Berninger’s baritone rumbles in a barely recognizable form, but he carries a sense of gravitas most singers would kill for, even when he sings about making pies. Gone is the screaming that peppered Alligator‘s more intense moments, replaced with a decidedly cheerless mumble.
The opener, “Fake Empire”, is a mood piece on par with U2’s heady days, showcasing the band at the height of its powers. There’s a black and white resignation that covers the song like a pall. The build-up is serene, as Berninger practically talks his way through the drunken gloom. The horns raise the tension to an unnerving level. It’s a fucking great song. “Mistaken for Strangers” continues the rough and tumble posturing to sublime effect, carefully pitting tension against flickering sparks of the rhythm section. Berninger has mastered a sort of hopeful acquiescence, his cadence beating against the propulsive snare with a jittery confidence.
The steady drive of “Brainy” recalls Joy Division’s nervous edge, while Berninger puts on his finest Leonard Cohen suit and waxes inexplicable. The organs are barely audible beneath the refracted guitars, but they lend a hazy atmosphere to Berninger’s aching murmur, “You might need me more than you think you will.” The band opens up its musical chest and pulls out the strings for “Squalor Victoria”- a piano-laced, mid-tempo rumble. The drums are a pounding, constant presence and sound devastatingly powerful beneath Berninger’s refrain, “raise our heavenly glasses to the heavens/Squalor Victoria, Squalor Victoria.”
The National has cultivated its brand of existential melancholy over the course of four records, attaining a level of refinement so rare on Boxer that everyone seems to be celebrating its achievement. I’m honestly taken aback by the buzz, given the band’s awkward and unaggressive collective persona, but a record this good clearly speaks for itself.