The National, "Green Gloves" (YSI link)
The National, "Start A War" (YSI link)
It's rare for me to write a review and completely scratch it. I usually find that the first 5 to 10 listens give me my general feel for the album, my like or dislike. From there, it's more about coming to terms with my original opinion. I'm not sure I've ever had an experience like the one with the new album from The National, Boxer. I've enjoyed their previous albums, although usually I find them missing a great song or two to put them in favorite album consideration. On first, second and third listens, I really felt underwhelmed, like it wasn't even at that level.
I took a day off, dialed it back up on the iPod and suddenly I heard one of the best albums of the year. I'm not a 100% sure what the change was, but I think that there were two major factors. First, I started to listen to the lyrics more, started to hear these songs about loneliness, the crumbling relationships, the self-medication, got beyond the monotone vocals and heard what was being said. In particular, "Start A War" struck a nerve, one of the best rock songs I've heard in a long time. Everything works for me on this one, from Matt Berninger's drowsy vocals to the restrained music to the simple refrain, "Walk away now and you're gonna start a war." The story of a crumbling relationship is captured perfectly, from the entreaties to stay and deal with things to the veiled, almost-powerless threat of war. The music is like a pot on boil that gets taken off before the bubbles start flying to the top, a nice simmering rock backdrop that builds the tension. "Green Gloves" has more of a folk feel, the picked chords more distinct, the background vocals are beautiful. The lyrics are even more bleak, a lament of detachment and an attempt to bridge that.
In general, this album eschews the louder, harder rock songs that were usually the stars of previous albums. That was the second key, as the numerous listens gave me a chance to adjust my ears further to rock music in general and more importantly to escape my own preconceived notions. Once I did, I heard a wonderful album that digs down into the darkness but never wallows. The music is also top-notch, like I said, less loud and rock-y, but that only makes it more powerful for me. I feel like there's more strings and keys and even horns, but I could just be wrong. It all sounds like a band that has become comfortable with its own identity, willing to take things at their own pace, tinker with their formula.
I did want to take a minute to compare this album to another recent favorite, Okkervil River's The Stage Names. For me, the Okkervil River one was decidedly better and so I wondered why it was so clear, as I really do love Boxer. I think that it comes down to the fact that Will Sheff of Okkervil shows complexity that doesn't come through in Berninger and The National. He gives me anger, love, sadness, joy and he lets you hear it. His vocals range, he doesn't seem to be hiding behind any sort of cool detachment. While I love that detachment and strive for it, deep down I am drawn most to those who can't control it all the time, who show all sides even if they don't want to. Hope this makes sense.
Obviously, this one is highly recommended. Go and grab a copy as soon as possible, as it's hard to imagine that this is going to be one of the best of the year. You can catch the band on tour, as they kick things off in the greatest city on Earth, Philadelphia, September 4th at the TLA.