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Sometimes stately, often insistent and never short of majestic, The National’s fourth opus is a towering achievement and this Boxer is surely already a heavyweight contender for album of the year.
John Walshe, 24 May 2007
When Ohio-born, Brooklyn-based quintet The National released their third album, Alligator, in 2005, it almost slipped under the radar, and yet it quietly, almost surreptitiously wormed its way into most end of year best-ofs, finishing up giving Arcade Fire’s Funeral a run for its money: yes it was that good. Boxer, if anything, is an even more rounded and complete record. True, there’s none of the fire and rage that propelled ‘Abel’ and ‘Mister November’, but there’s anguish aplenty here, served up with brains, brawn and more than a little panache.
The National’s secret weapon is Matt Beringer. Music’s answer to Peter Crouch, this gangly frontman has a voice that’s as rich as dark chocolate and as resonant as a catherdral bell. Pitched somewhere between the boozy baritone of Stuart Staples, but without the drunken-uncle-at-a-wedding schtick, and Nick Cave, without the biblical brimstone, you could listen to Beringer singing the appendices of a legal document and it would still sound incredible.
The two sets of brothers who make up the rest of the band, Aaron and Bryce Sessner and Bryan and Scott Devendorf, form a heady backdrop to Beringer’s brooding bass tones. The drumming’s as insistent as Interpol, the bass low but muscular like Joy Division at their best, and the twin guitars guiding the melody perfectly, without ever getting too fussy. There are also a wealth of strings and wind instruments in the background, but they’re never allowed to take over, while longtime friend Sufjan Stevens contributes his ivory-tinkling skills to the gentle ‘Racing Like A Pro’ and the bittersweet ‘Ada’.
There’s not one bad song among the dozen here, but highlights include the funereal ‘Green Gloves’, one of the most beautiful tracks you’re likely to hear all year, the slow-burning majesty of ‘Fake Empire’, the meaty singalong of ‘Squalor Victoria’, the urban ennui of ‘Apartment Story’ and the simply stunning ‘Start A War’.
Thematically, the ground covered includes relationships, war, love and loneliness but neither their lyrics nor arrangements are ever obvious, Beringer for the most part preferring oblique references and snippets of conversation. “You know I dreamed about you, for 29 years, before I saw you”, he sings on the magnificent ‘Slow Show’ and that sentiment perfectly encapsulates his band: we’ve wished for an outfit who combine the lyricism of Cohen or Waits with the musical muscle of REM and the scope and vision of Arcade Fire, but hardly dared to believe that they existed, until now. Sometimes stately, often insistent and never short of majestic, The National’s fourth opus is a towering achievement and this Boxer is surely already a heavyweight contender for album of the year.