Aside from a few lame stabs at slow-core, The National’s Alligator is a brash and explosive record with a cool, cynical center courtesy of the nonchalant bad-assness of frontman Matt Berninger, who drops elegantly nonsensical couplets like “I’m a birthday candle/In a circle of black girls” with a Tom Waits-esque grunt. Alligator hearkened back to a time of innocence—days when indie-rock actually rocked, college radio ruled airwaves, and no one knew what a podcast was, days when The Replacements and Husker Du made room for whippersnappers like Superchunk and Archers Of Loaf. In fact, Archers is the ideal reference point for Alligator, since Berninger’s growly delivery can be most accurately described as Eric Bachmann-esque. Fittingly, The National’s Boxer sounds a bit like Bachmann’s post-Archers project Crooked Fingers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since one can never have enough spooky Americana (or at least I can’t), but Crooked Fingers never sounded as fresh or raw as Archers did, and Boxer isn’t as immediately bracing as Alligator. Stick with it, though: this is an unnerving, slick piece of rock n’ roll; as wraithlike as Air’s moon-rock, Boxer is also as focused and rugged as a great punk record.
“Mistaken For Strangers” begins with some EVOL-style guitar work—dissonant harmonics run through a delay pedal—before Bryan Devendorf’s drums kick in like a machine gun at half speed. Layers of looped guitars, the sound of breaking glass, and keyboards pile up, but Devendorf’s rhythms set a mood as taut and anxious as Berninger’s cryptic chorus (“You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends”). In fact, most of Boxer‘s success is due to Devendorf’s drumming: The terrific “Brainy” is driven by rolls that would make Tony Williams jealous and the distorted snares on “Guest Room” are nearly tribal. There are no flat-out rockers like Alligator‘s “Mr. November” or “Lit Up,” but Devendorf’s kit work and the rest of the band’s tense blend of static hooks and reverb-based drone pack each song with a powerful sense of unease. That goes for the tracks without drums as well: “Green Gloves” and the blog hit “Let’s Start A War” both sound like the type of apocalyptic folk that Rick Rubin masterminded on American V.
Beggar’s Banquet didn’t send a lyric sheet, and I couldn’t find one online: Honestly, nothing sticks out quite like the “birthday candle” line from Alligator‘s “All The Wine.” But, ultimately, I don’t think it matters too much, as Berninger’s baritone is just another fascinating, eerie addition to Boxer‘s sonic collage, and it might be more effective if his thoughts remain mysterious or unclear. Boxer works best as a mood piece; it’s also the first National release to work as a whole, and it’s the best album I’ve heard so far this year.