In a recent interview, Matt Berninger described how reading through the first couple pages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein helped him put pen to paper when he worried he’d never be able to write again: “I’m not even really reading. I’m just, like—I’m just letting, like, words to pop in.” I find it interesting that he placed the words in the active role. He wasn’t reading words; words were appearing. Then he latched onto a line and started writing the first lyrics for what would become the band’s most recent album. In my experience, this kind of openness, allowing words to become things in and of themselves—sounds, images—and not just signifiers, is often what makes poetry happen. And it’s funny because that’s how The National’s lyrics have always felt for me, encouraging a similar kind of openness. The ambiguity of The National’s lyrics is often linked to a throughline that emerges in reviews, interviews, even the band’s career trajectory. Writers have consistently referred to the band’s records as “growers.” Even the band has described Alligator, the 2005 release that in many ways put them on the map, in such terms. As Aaron Dessner put it, “It wasn’t crazy—just a steady growth that happened with that record… After a year of it being out, it just started to seep into people’s consciousness or something.”
The National are often linked to the New York City rock scene, but, of course, they were never really part of that scene when it happened, despite the fact that their practice space was right next to Interpol’s. The songs they heard the band workshopping would turn into 2001’s much-hyped Turn on the Bright Lights, whereas The National wouldn’t start to generate serious buzz until several years later. Even then, it wasn’t anything like Fever to Tell or Is This It. Things clearly worked out for them, but it’s difficult to pinpoint a lightning bolt moment. At the same time, they also avoided the danger associated with meteoric rises—on Boxer, the band wanted to “paint [themselves] out of any corners,” as Berninger put it. Instead, things kind of just grew and grew with each album. At some point or other they must have turned around and thought, I guess we’ve made something sustainable. At this point, the story of The National’s slow build relative to the New York rock “explosion,” taken by many to be indicative somehow of what makes The National different from other indie rock bands, is as familiar to fans as references to the polyrhythmic piano on “Fake Empire,” or its role in Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign.
While it might not be an explosion on the level of The Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or Interpol, Boxer might be the closest thing to it in The National’s career. At the very least, it’s the record fans often look back on as the moment the band’s sound crystallized. Alligator marked the moment when things started picking up, but as Aaron Dessner mentioned, it wasn’t until the record had been out for a year that it started gaining traction. High Violet might’ve reached a higher pinnacle of hype, but the train had taken off at that point. In any case, Boxer solidified certain elements of The National’s sound: it dialed back the harshness (fans of Berninger’s screaming would find little resembling it here), the guitars made room for more piano and Padma Newsome’s swelling horn and string arrangements, and, in general, it nailed the tone of restrained grandeur that they are now known for.
The tension at the heart of that delicate balance is matched by a similar thematic tension in Berninger’s lyrics, one which picked up on some of the themes on their previous record and sharpened them. It strikes that difficult balance between romanticism and cynicism, both of which are essential when describing the feeling of disillusionment which permeates the record. Opening track “Fake Empire,” for many the quintessential The National song, begins as pure fancy—sipping boozy lemonade, tiptoeing through the shiny city, diamond slippers and all, a ballet on ice, bluebirds on shoulders—but its title suggests the tension at the heart of it. Matt Berninger has said that the song is about “not wanting to think about politics” while going on to say that it is a political song, one that is “critical of the way [the U.S.] works”—a critique of escapism that revels in it at the same time. There’s irony in the very dreaminess of this song, but the song is also so invested in probing, even luxuriating in, the depths of that escapism, exploring its very real temptations and the space of a speaker who is delightfully, if dangerously, “half awake.” As Berninger said in another interview: “‘Fake Empire’ is a political song, but it’s also a song about getting fucked up and avoiding responsibility in life. It’s a drinking song, too.”
The political is personal, as Berninger says later in the same interview, and the cynic in this album is also a (self-aware) romantic. Even at its most bitingly cynical, the album never loses sight of moments of beauty, whether they are rendered musically or lyrically (usually both). At the same time, even at its most romantic, Boxer never feels naïve. It’s as if the band took the oft-quoted directive from Sylvia Plath’s journals—to make “the right kind of dream, the sober, adult kind of magic: illusion born from disillusion”—as its guide.
It’s this kind of balance that makes lines in “Squalor Victoria” like “I’m going down among the saints” so rich. On the one hand, it’s hyperbolic; the young, white-collar, salaried speaker of a song that begins with the line, “Underline everything/I’m a professional in my beloved white shirt” is clearly no martyr, but it’s not tonally one-note. There’s humor and melancholy in the gap between the assertion of someone claiming their work will be remembered and the emptiness of that work. Similarly, on “Racing Like a Pro,” there’s empathy in the second-person address, even if lines like “You’re shootin’ up the ladder” are steeped in irony. Even at its most cynical, Boxer is a romantic album, confronting the lack of meaning of modern-day capitalism through the eyes of speakers who, for all their delusion and defeat, really do want to believe in something.
See also: “Apartment Story,” in which Berninger sings, “So worry not / All things are well / We’ll be alright.” We immediately know it’s wishful thinking—an assertion made more out of yearning than certainty, immediately undercut by the next line. Why will we be alright? Because “We have our looks and perfume on.” Irony tempers idealism, highlighting the speaker’s self-deception, but romantic yearning also tempers cynicism such that the song’s emotional heft is not undercut by it. That heft is present not only in Bryan Devendorf’s propulsive drumming (another staple of The National’s sound, and a highlight throughout Boxer) and the whirring guitars. It’s also in the gap between wish and reality, the space of disillusion, the realization that “everything we did believe / Is diving, diving, diving off the balcony.”
We see this disenchantment elsewhere in the themes of alienation throughout the record. “You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends / When you pass them at night / Under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights” goes the chorus of the album’s lead single. The acoustic-led “Green Gloves” delves deeper into the subject, as the speaker responds to losing friends by imagining practically becoming them with uncomfortable intimacy (“Watch their videos in their chairs,” “Get inside their heads, love their loves”). As Berninger described it: “It’s more about trying to remember someone and sort of be them—someone that you’ve lost your connection with (maybe because of a death)… You’re actually recreating them somehow in order to know them better.”
Why are the gloves green? I don’t know. Some have suggested jealousy, but that doesn’t really square with Berninger’s account of the song. Personally, I prefer that the gloves be green simply because they’re green. It has something to do with words taking on meaning beyond their role as signifiers, like the opening passages of Frankenstein as Berninger read them. It’s an important part of what makes the lyrics on Boxer stay with me. As with any good writing, you can summarize the themes, the meaning of the words themselves, but that won’t recreate it. Leaving space for the inexpressible even as he gestures toward it is something Berninger’s always excelled at. When talking about what makes Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” so good, Berninger said, “That song is just a giant, complex story that I don’t quite understand.” I think that last part is important. While I can talk about some aspects of Boxer which make it great, I can’t exhaustively articulate what makes Boxer such a special record for me. It’s hard to talk about special records. It’s hard to talk about a record you loved in high school, when you didn’t feel any particular need to put a finger on why. Even now, I can’t really say precisely why it’s important that Berninger sings “Stay near your” twice on “Gospel” before going into the verse, as if he’s trying to start the engine of an old car, but it is. Maybe it’s just the small acknowledgement that words are music, too.
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