When the National released Alligator in 2006, they were met with the kind of over-the-top critical praise that’s often reserved for bands with a more pronounced gimmick. The Arcade Fire, with their vaguely old-timey look and their circus-like stage show, had it coming all along. As did people like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, with their amateurish mysticism and offbeat vocal styles. But the National was then and still is just a regular old guitar band, and not even the kind that offers salvation in giant, Big Rock explosions or hyper-stylish posturing. After the 2003 release of Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, which stands as the band’s most aggressive, dynamic record to date, they toned things down, focusing more on plodding, mid-tempo numbers that were admirable for their understated arrangements and singer Matt Berninger’s smart, self-deprecating lyrics, but also frustrating because they never quite strayed from the middle of the road.
And with Boxer, they’re continuing down that same path, taking one giant step further away from any of the qualities that would easily explain their widespread acclaim. They’re still most comfortable with the moderately paced songs, and there’s not a whole lot to speak of in terms of dynamics. None of this, believe it or not, is to say that Boxer is a bad record. Because of their unwavering commitment their chosen tone, and their willingness to continuously explore the nuances of it, the record winds up being a cathartic exercise in restraint that is puzzling at first but ultimately rewarding. Berninger’s dark, brooding vocals are complimented by a steady stream of jangly guitars, swirling keyboards and surprisingly impressive drumming, all of which are notable for the complex ways in which they relate to one another. Well-placed additions like the horns at the end of ‘Fake Empire’ and the acoustic guitar that serves as the centerpiece for ‘Slow Show’ mix things up just enough, urging you to pay the entire album the attention it needs if it’s ever going to reveal itself fully. They’re still not the kind of band you’d expect to have all the success they’ve had, but it’s nice to know that people are willing to work this hard to enjoy something.