The National are a rare and special commodity indeed, they seem to exist in an alternate reality all of their own. They have an almost Teflon power to repel any concrete judgments that aim to stick to their ethereal outer surface. Though they never claim to make music that breaks boundaries, creatively they exist in a bubble. Their sound recalls artists like Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen but even as I write this my head's telling me "well not really." Artistically they follow their own path religiously. You would never catch Matt Berninger penning an openly anti-war lyric, instead he expertly crafts word groupings that defy imagination and meaning yet inspire a certain magical imagery that is totally unique to them. The write up on their myspace page puts it perfectly. "The band sings about the kind of dreams that ruin lives, and they make of those dreams the kind of music that saves them."
With Alligator, their 2005 debt for Beggars Banquet, The National pricked up the ears of music critics, bloggers and any one with a heart and at their London gig at Koko they looked openly stunned as the rapturous crowd sang along ecstatically to ever line. It's easy to create honest and unadulterated art in virtual obscurity but how do you do it when your last album genuinely changed lives? Well, Boxer is how.
This follow up contains not a single trace of self awareness. It is as honest and unique as its predecessor and for that reason is like discovering the band all over again. It uses Alligator as a starting point and goes deeper, plumbing newer and far more richer depths of sound and mood. Musically they show a remarkable maturity using great washes of strings to block in their dream-like landscape then send out a resounding boom across this land with pounding piano and the best drumming this band has ever produced.
From the outset it's pretty clear we're in for a treat. Fake Empire is just the kind of opener you want to hear from a band with this much expectation. A rumbling piano counts in Berninger's voice which is gloriously baritone and heralds the first glimpse of the awesome drumming we see so often on Boxer. Mistaken For Strangers has more bite to it, with chugging guitars accompanying the pounding drums. Songs like Green Gloves and Slow Slow just ooze from the speakers with thick, all consuming quality. Slow Slow's gently strummed structure ticks along with a majestic string accompaniment and ends up soaring on a beautifully toe-tapping rhythm. Matt Berninger writes with almost stream-of-consciousness fluidity and his strange tales of diamond slippers, gay ballets on ice and rosie minded fuzz seem to drip from his tongue with such ease that it's quite hypnotic. Unlike previous albums Berninger never raises his voice on Boxer and the blood curdling scream of songs like Sad Songs' Available and Alligator's Abel has all but vanished. Instead we get a voice almost unfathomable in depth which seems to be used as much as an instrument as a conveyor of narrative.
If I had to include one slight complaint it would be the choice of ending on the record. Gospel brings things to a close on a relatively week note especially as the song preceding it is so wonderful. In my opinion Ada would end this album with more of a lasting power with its haunting melancholia and gently simmering unease. But it seems foolish to dwell on this as you'll rarely be listening to this album once and pretty soon you'll have had it on repeat so often that you wont know how it ends.
This album has a strange power. Its depth is slow releasing and after the third play you'll wonder if someone has switched cd's on you. The myriad of layers encoded in its rich tapestry will reveal themselves to you with ever emerging magnificence until its overall splendor will have you open mouthed in awe and wonder. If it hasn't got you after the fifth listen then there's something wrong with your brain or your audio equipment. You can't do much about your brain but if it's the latter then I recommend hiring a Bentley for a weekend and giving it a go on that stereo. Believe me, it'll be worth every penny.