Music Reviews

The National Boxer

(Beggars Banquet) Rating - 9/10

Some records are blatant. It didn't take too many listens to figure out Revolver was the Greatest Album Ever Made. But some aren't so easy. The genius of Boxer is locked up tight. From the outside, this fourth LP from The National is a plain and seemingly soulless, albeit beautiful, record - like Ester Drang's Rocinate or pretty much anything by Coldplay.

But that's just a red herring.

On the inside, it's a kaleidoscopic record, bursting with life and soul - more like Interpol's Turn on the Bright Lights or My Morning Jacket's Z.

The key to opening up Boxer is in the space between Bryan Devendorf's cataclysmic, driving drumming - which is placed out front to the joy of neglected skin-pounders everywhere - and the moody, atmospheric guitars and pianos that make up the rest of the Brooklyn quartet's palette. The space between the two sounds is a world unto itself.

The album's delicate balance is apparent from track one. The opening notes of Boxer, from the song Fake Empire, are guest Sufjan Stevens' unmistakable contribution. The piano here is vintage Stevens - a simple, stuttering, staggering, sauntering dance.

But it's just another red herring. The true genius of this track is the way the group incorporates Devendorf's drum part into the mix. You don't notice it at first - not until it smacks you in the face. Stevens' part waltzes along the offbeat, while Devendorf drums along the beat itself, until suddenly they merge. At the towering climax, when it all comes together, you hear the ensemble for the first time - and you get a peek at the dancing colours inside that once-unassuming box.

The National keeps its listeners at arms' length throughout Boxer - a record that takes patience, especially for a critic. But that's not to say it isn't rewarding. The struggle to ascertain how Boxer maintains its allure is what makes it the high-powered tour de force that it is. All at once, it's sexy, mysterious and dangerous.

For me, that patience paid off at 2:40 into Slow Show - the moment when singer Matt Berninger's suave, death-croon coalesces with guest Sufjan Stevens' piano riff and Devendorf's pulsating drums. It's pure, unadulterated, euphoric, spine-tingling beauty.

Berninger's lyrics are full of self-deprecation, non-sequitors and sardonic wit - the term "Waitsian" never applied to another songwriter more than it does to Berninger - and it accentuates the complexity and mystery of the music

Like Tom Waits, also, Berninger's ambiguity is his strongest trait. Depending on the listener's interpretation, The National could be saying anything. Don't bother overanalyzing Berninger; just sit back and swim in the sad, prismatic melancholy of The Boxer.

Although the band has managed to retain the charm of its breakthrough, 2005's Alligator, it has expanded and accentuated its sound using a number of new tricks and flourishes.

With Boxer, The National has not only crafted a contender for Album of the Year, but is also the nail in the coffin of the Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah vs. The National debate.

Take the time to unlock this record.