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The National - Boxer

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Artist: The National

Album: Boxer

Label: Beggars Banquet

Review date: May. 22, 2007

The National have inscribed themselves with a certain mastery in the indie rock tradition. Working outward from the ambling charms of their self-titled 2001 debut, they've broadened their appeal to encompass an increasingly dark and fashionable take on their own rootsiness, which extends the inevitable map of resemblances but keeps them auspiciously close to the center. Boxer, their fourth record, is full of moves that will sound thoroughly familiar to patrons of mid-fi melancholy, but rare is the moment where the National seem to retread or trespass. Their exploration of the genre's boundaries is so lithe and confident, and their studied aloofness here so convincing, that the familiarity comes across as authenticity and the restless impulse for expansion feels, at times, transcendent.

What Boxer does best is rock, as it does primarily in its first act. The influence of producer Peter Katis, who notably worked on Interpol's first two albums, did not go uncommented on prior releases, especially on 2005's much-lauded Alligator, but here the National taps into that band's cloistered, shadowy energy with greater conviction and a far better sense of atmosphere (nowhere better than on the terrific "Mistaken For Strangers"). "Apartment Story" gets the debonair post-punk mood down impeccably; "Guest Room" falters lyrically, but co-opts the structure of many an Interpol song to pleasing effect. Opener "Fake Empire," though too mournful to be rousing, works itself from a meditative piano puzzle into a lovely, horn-stroked epiphany: like its early counterparts, it sounds composed to be kinetic, which sets Boxer apart from the rest of the country-via-city canon as much as anything else.

After the inspired opening salvo, the record tuckers itself out somewhat, trading in its rattle and hum for a guarded, brooding Americana – no less eloquent, but often less distinctive. Katis magnifies everything in the slower spaces, from the ever-sultry piano (some of it played, with laudable solemnity, by Sufjan Stevens) and Matt Berninger's wearily articulate drawl. In turn his lyrics – generally the National's uncertainty principle – stick out more, exposing in starker relief the thin line between artfully skewed ("You were always weird but I never had to hold you by the edges like I do now") and overly coy ("Ada, don't talk about reasons why you don't want to talk about reasons why you don't want to talk"). The softer numbers redeem themselves fully, particularly the serene "Start A War" and the deceptively warm "Gospel," but Boxer's cautious closing suite is much less memorable than its often-thrilling beginning.

At each of these turns, the name of a like-minded act is close at hand for anyone who cares to pinpoint it: Interpol, Tindersticks, Palaxy Tracks, Afghan Whigs, the Mendoza Line, I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness, so on and so forth. It's to the National's credit that they don't risk being subsumed by the sum of their influences, that instead their moody urbanity and tender vitriol get more compelling as they borrow from more directions. Boxer isn't flawless, but even its dullest moments are classy, and its ample highlights affirm the richness and versatility of this band's approach to the same thing countless others are doing.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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