It’s extraordinarily rare to hear a melancholy album that can be described as “likable”. In doing so The National made Boxer one of the defining albums of the decade and created something that’s close to impossible to argue with.
Many have compared Matt Berringer to Ian Curtis, vocally, and the same have made the observation that the album’s ethos is similar to that of many in the drearier strand of college-rock from the ‘80s. But what these distinctions miss is that Boxer is an album that could not have been made in any other decade. It wouldn’t have made sense in any other context. Isolation, now more than it’s ever been, is as much of a cultural staple as Mom and apple pie, and while many artists and albums have touched on this, none of them have so thoroughly committed themselves to the idea as The National.
Certainly, the key is less in the delivery than in the engine that runs the music itself. James Murphy and Arcade Fire have built their careers trying to make loneliness seem fashionable. The main difference is that with The National, that suave, pleading heartbreak isn’t the point, but merely a side effect. Berringer never takes his eye off the ball. He presents these feelings as being sexy and cool not because they are, but because as long as they’re going to be around anyway they might as well sound nice. It makes for a crushing dichotomy: What you hear on Boxer are fountains of rage and confusion being explained but never quite understood, controlled but never comforted. As quiet as it may be, it proves to be the perfect album to lose one’s mind to.
None of these thematic elements would amount to anything if the music itself sounded like garbage. Without question, half of this album’s success lies in the orchestration and drums. There’s no grandeur to the backing orchestra-it is there simply because the music could not be communicated any other way. Likewise, Brian Devendorf’s drumming is commanding but never overblown, only taking center stage when it’s necessary for the music. For all its moving parts, Boxer is an album of musical utilitarianism. It is dark and it is lush, but less as an expression of emotion and more as a statement of fact.
Boxer, then, is the Great American Tragedy for the modern age. It is a cocktail party where everyone is carrying a loaded gun, a series of paradoxes raised as questions but never answered, leaving you to wonder why the more you look at your problems the less you understand them and how trust can really be possible if you never really know anyone, ever. These canyons between us exist, and The National makes no pretenses about trying to build bridges between them. But they might stop you before you fall in.