In Steven Hall’s fangled and trippy new novel The Raw Shark Texts the protagonist is addled by a noir-like dissociative disorder—he comes to in a bedroom filled with mundane items newly backlit by the fact that none of them are recognizably his. Accordingly, the character finds them with wonder and unsurprise in equal, blearily beautiful measure: ‘waterglasses of varying ages’, ‘a tub of multivitamins and the remains of a blue toilet roll’, etc.
Matt Berninger, singer and lyricist for The National, has a similar severely concussed wit. If he woke up in a parked car outside the airport with no clue how he got there, he couldn’t have any less patience for small talk or any more curiosity about what Don DeLillo called ‘the half-concealed disasters that constitute a life.’ Berninger, better than any songwriter I know, mimics the surreal blips of the best imagistic fiction: the exploding-brain adagio of Denis Johnson’s Jesus Son or the busted-chronology veer of Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works Of Billy The Kid. His twitchy, groping, gas-lit brain bedecks itself in 90-mile waterwalls, circles of black girls, and superheroes who riff like Derek Jeter. Trophy wives wander, sinks are pissed in, and you float down your city in a fashion coat. It’s all so heavily subconscious, so expressionistic and hurriedly etched that the average National song, not that any of them are average, is a mini-exegesis of how memory works. Something to remember: skewed scenarist that he is, Berninger, with a little help from his friends, has turned The National into the best band on earth, pound for pound.
The National’s two previously notable albums were 2003’s Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, a black-eyed, blanching round of marital fisticuffs; and 2005’s flushed and raucous Alligator which was filled with Berninger wisecracks like “it’s a common fetish for a doting man/ to ballerina on the coffee table/ cock in hand” and was equally exquisite. Now there’s Boxer. It’s darker, somehow, than Alligator‘s fuddled sarcasm and even the Chekhovian squalor of Sad Songs. It plays like a muzzy dream, drowning in scratched vinyl and sights hurried and snagged, like flies in a jar. A feathery woman carries a blindfolded man through the streets. A man stands inside an empty tuxedo with grapes in his mouth. “You could drive a car through my head in five minutes,” Berninger declares on “Slow Show,” “from one side of it to the other.”
Boxer‘s two best songs, “Brainy” and “Green Gloves,” both address, from opposite angles, the clumsy equipose between curiosity and obsession, one of Berninger’s recurrent strands (birds and menstrual wordplay are a couple of others). “Brainy,” slightly countrified, is all bitchy interrogation (“I keep your fingerprints in a pink folder” and “you’re the tall kingdom I surround“) and lashed-out warning (“you might need me more than you think you will“). “Green Gloves” is slow and haunted, with Berninger musing “I’ve lost touch with all my friends/ they’re somewhere getting wasted/ hope they’re staying glued together.” A queasy allusion to a sort of emotional voyeurism, the chorus breaks and enters in more ways than the obvious: “get inside their heads/ with my green gloves/ watch their videos/ in their chairs.” Berninger’s dry-martini baritone is like a shaft of spaded-out earth. If I can be said to have hackles, they hoisted themselves high the first couple of times I heard this one. Initially I found it terrifying—it got in my head, green gloves or no. Ultimately I realized it’s nothing but a sort of adjacent lovesong, encircling the people you love whom you don’t talk about loving, the spinning secrets you’d kill them to know.
Two sets of brothers, the Devendorfs and the Dessners, bottom out Berninger’s sense of drama with a stream of relentlessly artful, if subtle, motifs. Drummer Bryan Devendorf is a particular revelation. Consider how sparingly he employs his cymbals, or drives home a song like “Mistaken For Strangers,” the band’s hardest-rocking piece since “Available” from Sad Songs. Boxer also ups the usage of piano and horns on Sufjan Stevens-vetted chamber-pop pieces like “Racing Like A Pro”; the midsections of “Slow Show” and “Ada,” meanwhile, wouldn’t be out of place on something by The Album Leaf or Eluvium. It’s hard to find a proper comparison for The National. Sporadically they evoke Pavement at their most geometric, although I wouldn’t want to read any short story Stephen Malkmus would write.
Hipsterati were all over Alligator and the band’s opening stint for the Arcade Fire this spring might break them in a way unforeseen even by praise in an issue of MetroPop, say, or a car commercial, which they scored last year. But even previous exposure to Berninger’s particular “dull and wicked ordinary way,” as a track from Alligator had it, does not brace you for the mixed-up crookedness and unruly joy of Boxer. If you’ve got a love for the language at its most beatifically tattooed and if you’ve got massive patience for webbed and tiered ten-cent epics that collect like cinders on the boardwalk, you will love Boxer. It might even make you want to handcuff yourself to a legal pad and write crazy-ass fiction, all night long. It won’t change the face of rock but it should.
Denis Johnson – Jesus’ Son
Silver Jews – American Water
Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man
MP3: “Fake Empire”