A couple years ago Alligator put the National on the map for many listeners, largely through a combination of vocalist Matt Berninger’s Jack ‘n’ Coke baritone, novelistic lyrics, and tendency to lose his voice on shadowy, boiled-over rock songs like “Lit Up,” “Abel,” and regular showstopper, “Mr. November.” On the band’s fourth full-length Boxer, Berninger, the only guy without a brother in the band, never raises his voice, and has never sounded so refined or, well, at home (except when he’s nervous by a punchbowl, the wall slipping away from his side, wanting nothing more than to hurry home, escape, start over?).
It’s a quieter, but richer sounding affair — like they’ve moved from the kitchen (a nice one at that) to a dimly lit crushed velvet-lined dining room complete with one of those faux Tiffany lamps. Throughout, Boxer has a sleepy, collaged feel: Twelve tracks blend into one, continue when you expect them to end, move like a connected shadow. A few guests, including Thomas Bartlett (a.k.a. Doveman), Padma Newsome of Clogs (guitarist Bryce Dessner’s also a member of that band), and Sufjan something or other, propel the night with piano and organ and woodwinds and brass, adding cushion to the brocade.
With all this talk of shut-eye, it makes sense “Fake Empire” opens the record finding our deep-voiced protagonist half-awake, opting to “stay out super late tonight” as he and a compatriot “tiptoe through our shiny city with our diamond slippers on.” (In “Apartment Story” folks campout, sleeping in their clothes, and following the directions of their television.) Fitting the dreamy outlines of the set, lyrics from earlier albums flit through certain songs like half-awake memories: “29 Years” from the 2001 self-titled debut reappears; moments from “Racing Like A Pro” were first in a compilation track, “Minor Star Of Rome”; “feathers are falling on my feet” from Alligator’s “Karen” pops up on “Gospel,” etc.
But it’s an ecstatic, compelling night: Showing as much restraint with his pen as he does his voice, Berninger’s writing’s getting even sharper; he pares words to essentials and ellipses. Images might not be as resonant as “the sky with a big slice of lemon” but they’re quietly gorgeous. (Funny that we joked about the Boss digging Bright Eyes, because Springsteen’s also a big fan of the National ? Berninger’s more Nebraska, Oberst more Born In The USA.)
Okay, we’ve obviously gotten in a bunch of listening this past weekend. Could it be one of our favorites of the year? Yes, definitely ? As we post this, we’re playing “Mistaken For Strangers” on infinite repeat.