After the demise of American Music Club in the mid nineties, there was a flurry of bands who threatened to fill their niche. The Willard Grant Conspiracy and Richmond Fontaine being just two. None have really succeeded, and I count the reformed AMC in that. The National have come closest, though. It’s a comparison that’s a little misleading – the quintet are very much their own band – but they are a literate, emotionally intelligent group who take the basic rock set up and use it to serve the song in whichever way feels most appropriate. They have a gifted lyricist and baritone in front man Matt Berninger, but he is ably served by the two pairs of brothers who make up the band – Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Bryan and Scott Devendorf. Unofficial sixth member Padma Newsome (who is a colleague of Bryce Dessner’s in Clogs) adds understated orchestration and his own prodigious violin playing when required.
Boxer isn’t a radical shift from the previous two albums – Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers and Alligator. The arrangements are a little more lush. Like its predecessors, it has a few songs that fail to get off the ground, or make much of an impression. It also has a decent clutch of top rate tunes. “Fake Empire” provides a low key introduction to the record, a downbeat Cohen-esque ballad. “Mistaken For Strangers”, which follows, is a widescreen, pulsating rock tune with shades of Joy Division, but not in an imitative way. The sound is never less than captivating, although it can be hard at times to hear Berninger’s words in some of the more uptempo material as he seems to be mixed a little deeper than on previous albums. This is a shame, because his lyrics are always worth hearing.
The problem with trying to do a review that is reasonably topical (the album came out yesterday) is that some music takes a lot longer to really reveal itself. Alligator was a definite grower. There are signs that Boxer is the same. The aforementioned pair of tunes, plus the menacing “Apartment Story”, the melancholy “Racing Like A Pro” and, especially, the epic, piano-led “Ada” are already favourites (“Ada don’t talk about reasons why you don’t want to talk about reasons why you don’t want to talk” – it does make sense!). There is nothing on Boxer quite as thrillingly in your face as “Mr November” or “Abel” – but then why should the band repeat themselves? I think it’s an album that is destined to become an old favourite over the coming years. That’s all you can ask of a record, really.