Compared to previous albums by The National, there’s a calm flow to Boxer that was previously absent. The pace is largely more consistent, but control also comes from the gradual coming to the fore of piano and horns, grounding the tunes, and lyrics that, while still confessional, are not as apocalyptic as before. There’s not quite the sense of lives spiralling out of control, and hence, not the sense of songs threatening to follow suit.
From the start, it almost sounds idyllic, in fact:
Stay out super late tonight picking apples, making pies
Put a little something in our lemonade and take it with us
The four-over-three of the piano, the closing fanfare, it’s enough to make a presidential candidate want to use an instrumental version in his campaign videos.
All very well, but where’s the dirty motel sex, the broken love lives, the torment of a life that couldn’t be lived any other way? Where will we find the darkness and gloom that the band celebrate?
For now, Mistaken for Strangers is on the attack with Bryan Devendorf’s typically fierce percussion, and Matt Berninger’s lyrics, on the one hand a devastating put down (“Oh, you wouldn’t want an angel watching over, surprise, surprise, they wouldn’t wanna watch”), on the other just a beautiful metre of repeated sounds, cutting through the instruments as much as they through each other. On Racing Like a Pro, this is echoed, a mournful piano sometimes following Berninger’s cue, at other times running away. Sad horns wrap themselves round the song’s close, and we’re back in the sinister not-quite-right underworld of Berninger’s mind:
Sometimes you get up and bake a cake or something
Sometimes you stay in bed
Sometimes you go la di da di da di da da
Until your eyes roll back into your head
Ada plays a similar game - this time at speed - playing verbal games (“Ada, don’t talk about reasons why you don’t want to talk About reasons why you don’t wanna talk”), with Sufjan Stevens playing piano games and the horns providing a beautiful, restrained swell.
Truly Boxer is an album that oozes restraint and control. Compare Gospel to anything from the debut album, for instance, and the difference is striking: a colliery band going up against willing but under-rehearsed volunteers.
In a way, though, this restraint is the album’s only weakness. Through its middle section, you could swap any song for any other without noticing: Green Gloves, Slow Show, and Start a War all bubble quietly without needing to raise their voice to make a point, but even when it seems it will boil over, as on Apartment Story, the explosion never arrives. You can’t help longing for a gratuitous Mr. November to come along and make something happen through sheer force of will. It’s almost as if The National have settled into a comfortable groove, an easy slumber from which they’ll take some rousing.