May 23, 2007

On the National’s first two records, lead singer Matt Berninger and the brothers Devendorf and Dessner were middle-weight pugilists trying to move up in the game, fighting on under-cards in undersized venues. Released on their own Brassland label, few people heard The National or Sad Songs for Dirty Lover, but those that did found a lot to like in the brother’s Leonard Cohen by way of Uncle Tupelo hybrid of alt-country and sad indie-leaning chamber pop

The National’s breakthrough came with 2005’s excellent Alligator. Of course, break-through is a relative word. Despite the band’s label switch to indie heavyweights, Beggar’s Banquet, the album was a slow burner, garnering critical raves but little notice outside of rock-crit circles, until later that spring when The National set off on a cross-country trek with blog wunderkinds Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! While half the crowds on that tour left after Clap Your Hands’ set, those that stuck around were treated to a star-making turn from a band on the verge. Jettisoning their alt-country influences, The National had finally crafted a sound of their own, a brooding, nourish brand of nimble but crushingly powerful drums, sparkling pianos and taut, anthemic guitars, flanked by Berninger’s sarcastic, drunken baritone.

Because Who Doesn’t Like a Boxer?

“Boxer” is arguably the band’s finest work yet. More piano-based (with Sufjan Stevens contributing on “Fake Empire”) and more somber than “Alligator,” the record might lack a hay-maker like its predecessor’s “Mr. November,” but over the course of 42 minutes, it lands a consistent flurry of jabs and body-blows to bowl over even the most reluctant listener.

As for the lyrics, Berninger has retained his penchant for non-sequiters, commencing stand-out track, “Guest Room” with “they’re going to send us to prison for jerks.” In general, “Boxer” finds Berninger turning inwards, with lyrics more personal than anything he’s previously done.

12 tracks of beautiful but somber meditations, “Boxer” is ideal late night/last call listening. It’s the kind of record that ushers you out into the street, head ringing, vision blurred, soul rambling. Call Don King, these guys are ready for pay-per-view.

Originally Published On MetroMix

Grade: A-

MP3: The National-“Fake Empire”
MP3: The National-“Mistaken For Strangers”

Buy The National-Boxer

Also See:

Ian Cohen’s Rave Review at Stylus

Aquarium Drunkard’s Rave of the Album

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