Boxer Turns 10
Boxer is where the National became the National as we know them. People often talk that way about its predecessor, 2005’s Alligator, the one where they figured themselves out after the warm-up sketches of their self-titled debut and Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers. And that isn’t entirely untrue. Alligator was the album where people started to really take notice, the album where the National began to establish some of the core elements of their sound, the album with several songs that still rank as classics in the band’s catalog. But when the National released Boxer 10 years ago today, things started to cohere in a different way. This was the beginning of the National becoming one of the foremost rock artists of this century, the album you can credit for the band’s stature, sound, and identity today.
By now, the origin story is familiar. Toiling in a practice space on the side while most of them maintained steady day jobs, seeing inherently “cooler” New York bands like the Strokes and Interpol ascend rapidly, the National took their time finding themselves over the course of the early ’00s and their first two albums. With Alligator’s arrival in 2005, they had one of those “great albums you might’ve missed this year”-type releases, but also played shows where Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! opened, and chunks of the crowd left before the National’s headlining set. But there were long-term impacts. The amount of fans and critics who were keeping an eye on this band had increased, and Boxer was the first time they were really under pressure to deliver a satisfying followup. It was the moment where they could solidify their standing or drop the ball. There was danger of becoming one of those bands that has that one great album lost in the mess of a particular era and scene.
Of course, it didn’t go that way. Against most odds, the National followed Alligator with an album that was less immediate, subtler, more restrained — and it’s now often regarded as their definitive work. Against most odds, this album of ornate-yet-subdued music set the stage for them establishing an arena-indie sound built for the 2010s. Against most odds, this was the start of the National not just being one of the notable names in a particular scene, but one of the iconic rock artists of this century, no longer tied to the frameworks of the time and place in which their career first began to take off.
Each of the last four National albums — Alligator and Boxer, then 2010’s High Violet and 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me — has its own ethos while being built with a shared DNA. But many of the things people associate with the band originate with Boxer and, to varying degrees, define what came after. A recurring topic in interviews at the time and over the years: Matt Berninger doesn’t scream on any of the songs on Boxer. (This didn’t really happen enough for it to be as much of a cornerstone of their sound beforehand as people make it to be, but chalk it up to Berninger going full wild-eyed on some of their catchiest, most beloved songs to that point, like “Available” and “Abel” and “Mr. November.”) Instead, he dove deeper into the recesses of that rich, dark sing-speak voice everyone knows him for.
The music around him continued the interplay of the Dessner brothers’ guitars, though this time around they were often even less of a lead instrument than in the past, instead serving as textures in songs that increasingly felt like a complex tapestry. Bryce Dessner, in particular, was making his presence felt in a different way, incorporating his other life as a classical composer and bringing that (now immediately identifiable) piano polyrhythm to “Fake Empire” and guiding the band towards a committed embrace of horn and string arrangements. Perhaps within the context of late-’00s Brooklyn indie, this made them a “chamber-pop” band, which now suggests fussiness and affectations and a sound that, while the National can certainly be fussy, seems way too reductive. Case in point: Bryan Devendorf’s creativity behind the drumkit led to percussion playing as much of a lead, melodic role in the National as anything else, especially when it came to hyperactive, infectious beats like the one in “Squalor Victoria.”
You could already see plenty of this at play on Alligator, but as the years have passed, that album feels more like a (crucial) connective chapter between the younger, rangier National of the first two albums and the more mature and dignified National of Boxer onwards. These aspects of their identity flourished on Boxer, while the band crafted a musical atmosphere that was more idiosyncratic, more enveloping than in the past. You can thank Boxer and the way it takes its time unfolding for the stereotype that’ll still never leave the National — the idea of being a “slow-burn” band who make “grower” albums. Yet it’s also the album you can thank, with blueprints like “Fake Empire,” for firming up our expectations of a “a National song” — counter-intuitive or off-kilter arrangements somehow coming together, a contrast between bleak or melancholic or tortured lyrics with grand fanfares, the tightening build of tension before the final, cathartic release.
With the National long since having secured their prominent spot at the top of the indie world and festival bills, it’s easy to take the incremental steps of their career for granted. It’s easy to forget how weird it felt for this band to accrue more and more buzz for an album that sounded like Boxer. Perhaps true to the “grower” label, the hype around Boxer felt like a simmer that intensified over the course of the years following its release, the true climax of which was the big release of High Violet. It makes sense — even the band’s hookiest material usually requires you to live with it for some time before it reveals itself. But the thing about that music is that once it catches you, it’s hard to shake it. Detractors still write it off by calling the National boring. Fans know that the patience occasionally required for this material is usually paid back in full. ???But even so, while this music has become the stuff that can draw a big festival crowd, it is still an anomaly. There was something else within it all that attracted the diehard devotion of fans, from teenagers to old classic rock heads. It isn’t just the quality of the songwriting, the downbeat anthems the band excels in constructing. The nature of their music mixed with Berninger’s lyrics and worldview led to the National being not just a popular band, but a band that captured the atmosphere of the times.
Given the National’s current standing, another thing that’s sometimes easy to forget is that their late-bloomer status meant the albums where people fell in love with them were not the impressive works of young twenty-somethings, but rather the laboriously considered art of thirty-somethings. The concerns within followed suit. There are plenty of different themes and settings across Boxer, but there’s an overarching feeling of a paralyzing listlessness, of getting older and trying to parse all of the life happening around you.
Two pillars of the album are the push and pull of relationships and the ways you react when people pass out of your life. “You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends/ When you pass them at night/ Under the silver, silvery Citibank lights/ Arm in arm in arm and eyes and eyes, glazing under,” Berninger sings on “Mistaken For Strangers,” still one of the band’s most iconic tracks. That song is all unnerved, tumbling rush, but later on the band revisits this theme on the haunting dream of “Green Gloves,” in which a gently slithering guitar figure underpins Berninger’s images of trying to remember a person via becoming them for a moment. (“Get inside their clothes, with my green gloves/ Watch their videos, in their chairs/ Get inside their beds, with my green gloves/ Get inside their heads, love their loves,” he sings in the chorus.) And though “Green Gloves” opens with an image of the friends you’ve lost touch with being out there somewhere getting wasted, the possibility that death has taken these people out of your life lingers over both tracks.
??That, of course, is the kind of thing that happens as you grow older; people disappear, in some form or another. Many of the songs on Boxer, like many of the best National songs, otherwise grapple with the little interactions and earthquakes between people: a destructive fight rendered in a claustrophobic instrumental with “Start A War,” a self-deprecating and self-conscious road to earnest romantic gestures in standout “Slow Show.” One of Boxer’s centerpieces, “Apartment Story,” might conjure it all best — a series of images from the life of a couple living together in New York, fuzzily bursting through the poignant and banal moments alike. It remains one of the band’s catchiest and most direct songs, the one that uses the speed of modern city life explicitly, where its neighbors try to slow everything down to make room for contemplation.
“Tired and wired/ We ruin too easy,” Berninger sings in the chorus of that song. For a while, that could’ve been the manifesto of the band’s work in general. The little character sketches and vignettes that comprise Boxer have a consistent setting and tone to them despite their specific angles. Another consequence of their age and background at this point in their career, the National delved into a kind of middle-class, city-transplant ennui, the realities of anyone getting older mixing with the circumstances of the decade.
Before they became true rock stars, they still touched on the life of a young-ish person holding down an office job in New York as life blurred by faster. “Underline everything/ I’m a professional/ In my beloved white shirt,” Berninger sings on “Squalor Victoria”; “Showered and blue-blazered/ Fill yourself with quarters,” he sings before the proclamation of the title in “Mistaken For Strangers.” The sum of it all — of life tumbling and being misspent and people passing in and out — yields a kind of low-flying disenchantment.
And that’s where Boxer played its real trick, where the reasons behind the National’s rise come into focus. They’re one of those bands that fosters a fervent connection with their fans, because of the time listeners invest in this music, and because of the specific intimacy of the material — Berninger’s stories can be hyper-specific but also abstract, the kinds of things that feel poetic and insular but you can still write yourself into. But there was an overarching universality to it, too.
These songs take place in a particular time in America. A post-9/11 world, in which the rise of digital culture was beginning to alter everything, the precipice of the financial crisis, the dogged final days of the Bush administration. The perspective the National were singing from, within all of this, was a kind of displacement. That listless paralysis came not just from being an adult trying to figure it out in New York; it came from being a person coming of age in one version of this country and suddenly finding yourself presented with a very different one. There’s a sense of not knowing where you belong, a sense of not being able to control any of the factors around you. Tired and wired, we ruin too easy. ??Most of the band’s album titles are ciphers, the novelistic moniker encompassing the short stories within. But it isn’t hard to read into Boxer. You can apply it to their career — in a cautious crouch, but continuing to keep swinging until they landed a hit, so to speak. But, more importantly, it signifies the world the album takes place in, the characters it depicts. People dodging, and swinging, sometimes blindly, trying to find their way out of the messy ring they’re stuck in. ?
Which takes us to “Fake Empire,” probably the band’s main calling card (High Violet’s “Terrible Love” would be a primary contender), and likely still their most well-known song. It opens the album with the cinematic gesture of opening credits, Bryce’s piano polyrhythm suggesting the world we’re walking into. “Stay out super late tonight/ Picking apples, making pies/ Put a little something in our lemonade/ And take it with us,” Berninger intones, before another of the album’s key lines, “We’re half awake in a fake empire.”
Its tone is one of dejection, of wanting nocturnal city-street meanderings instead of engaging with the outside world. (Berninger has actually commented on how the song was about trying not to think about politics.) In one of the clearest contrasts in the National’s catalog, the narrative gives way to a gradually building track, finally bursting open into that horn fanfare at the end.
Taken simply as a depiction of the latter-day Bush years, the music might seem dissonant and at-odds with the record that follows given that it drops you right into the monochrome chimes of the guitar intro in “Mistaken For Strangers.” But when “Fake Empire” was used in the Obama campaign, it took on a new meaning; it became a rallying cry for a new era. “We’re half awake in a fake empire” was no longer the desired, medicated effect or the hopeless self-laceration. It was a charge.
That link to the Obama campaign is part of what’s cemented the legacy of “Fake Empire,” and it feels like that was part of what made the National seem bigger all the sudden, too. In retrospect, this may be one of the strangest elements of revisiting Boxer 10 years later. This is the song we all know, the one that helped define this band and a piece of time. But the happy ending it could suggest through its fanfare and Obama’s first victory seems illegible now, when we find ourselves in an America that seems that much worse and more deluded and more divided than the one that first inspired the song. We were half awake in a different way by the end of the Obama years, thinking we’d fixed so many things. “Fake Empire” made for a particularly chilling soundtrack the rainy morning of Trump’s inauguration.
Despite the topicality of “Fake Empire,” though, part of what’s made the National the band they are now, and part of how Boxer’s enduring quality plays into that, is their ability to exist outside of time and place while still having their finger on the pulse. Ten years later, I don’t know whether Boxer is the perfect late-night New York album, or the record you put out on as you drive far away from the city. I don’t know whether it’s about feeling out of place where you came from or where you ended up, dissatisfied with the life you’ve found or merely freaked out that it’s passing so quickly. It can be any of those things; it can be slotted into the narrative of late-’00s New York indie, if you want; it can be the brooding document of a particular time in a person’s life, the stuff you can develop your own deep connection to.
This is where everything about them crystalized, where the National announced themselves as the poet laureates of dislocation, paralysis, and disenchantment, the rock band able to embody so much of 21st century experience. And 10 years later, it still feels like Boxer is giving something back for all the time we’ve spent with it.