Part of the experience of becoming attached to an album is that surprising moment when it comes at you out of left field, when something doesn’t go quite as you’d expect. A good album gets behind your defenses and bypasses your algorithms of expectation. It makes you set new frames of reference and reconsider what you thought you ought to expect.
The inwardly-gazing bent of The National’s brooding humanity of subject matter and intermittently bombastic catharsis did just that on 2005’s Alligator, their last album. The deep, woodgrain timbre of Matt Berninger’s vocals chanting the stream of everyman’s consciousness brought the poetry of music for mass consumption into new, more personal spaces. In between nervous breakdowns, oddly-timed just as they are in life, the songs on that album taught the listener to wait and listen to learn how they meant, not just what they meant or how they sounded. Alligator was The National’s beautiful album of pop music without a user’s manual. With no one to ask how to hear it, you had to wait until the wash of sound and verses found a chink in your understanding and flushed in.
The personal settings and themes of the songs on Boxer, the new album, are not new ground for the band, but their delivery is. The songs are less accusatory. They are more often simply in the space they describe, at home with the facts they lay out, such as when Berninger intones on “Slow Show” (“I want to hurry home to you/put on a slow, dumb show for you/crack you up/So you can/Pin a blue ribbon on my breast/but I’m very, very frightened/I’ll overdo it.” We see vulnerability and the admission that to return home to the fake empire of interpersonal myths, like returning to Vonnegut’s all-important “nation of two”, to return to the myths that stand to privately glue people together, is the paramount desire. The concerns the songs are focused on are not with the world at large, but, as with the first single, “Mistaken for Strangers”, whether the play-acting and personal mythbuilding we all engage in severs or strengthens the ties we keep dear between each other.
On Boxer, there is an audible lack of those screaming outbursts that lent their urgency to standout tracks “Abel” and “Lit Up” on the previous record. There are no longer the bewildered pleadings and apologies of tracks like Alligator‘s “Baby, We’ll Be Fine” or “Friend of Mine”. Instead there is a tangible, studied space and pacing to the record. I said it before, but singer Matt Berninger’s voice is woodgrain, it is a part of the music that surrounds it. It ages, changes colors. It becomes better and more careworn the more time the listener spends with it. The subtlety of the production, the absolutely perfect timing of each instrument, the whisper of backup vocals at the decided-upon moment; touches like these, and touches like the mechanical puff of pink noise peeking like Kilroy over the percussion on “Apartment Song”– each of these things bespeaks a flagellant’s devotion to presentation, a maniacal drive and fury behind the scenes. There, behind the bluescreen, is where the twitch and ire worn on Alligator‘s sleeve has holed up, dug foxholes, dedicated pillboxes and bunkers whose cornerstones no one but moles will read where devotees of a long and meaningful moment, devotees of our episodic and continuous human lives, will drink black coffee and pore over maps and strategy in fevered isolation.
To conclude, it is fitting to quote from a poet Berninger’s lyrics’ imagery quite often evokes, Robert Lowell. In Thoreau 2, Lowell writes, ‘…For Thoreau/Life in us was like water in a river: “It may rise higher this year than all others.”/Adrift there, dragging forty feet of line,/he felt a dull, uncertain, blundering purpose…’
This reviewer is reminded of the scene in The Outlaw Josie Wales wherein Clint Eastwood shoots the ferry rope of the raft carrying his pursuers, capsizing the craft and buying him time to escape. Squinting into the sight of his rifle he prefaces the shot by telling the carpetbagger who had moments before crossed the river with him, “Out here we got a thing we call a Missouri boat ride.” To really listen to The National is to admit that you can relate to the foundering Missouri boat ride we drift on with friends, family and lovers, dragging forty feet of line tied to no shore and feeling a dull, uncertain, blundering purpose on our attempt to pull from one bank of life’s flood to the next.