Prison For Jerks - 'Boxer' turns 10
Boxer is always referred to as an album that is all tension, and no release, which is the opposite of its predecessor—Alligator was billed as all release, and little to no tension.
That’s an accurate depiction, but it is also the sound of a band that a) was working under an incredible amount of pressure, and b) had no idea just how big they had gotten in a relatively short amount of time, as well as how big they’d become.
When The National were touring in support of Alligator, they were still trying to find an audience outside of the infamous “bedroom kids” that they were attracting as listeners—playing shows to crowds of around 30 people in some cities, like Minneapolis, where the band played at the now shuttered 400 Bar.
Cut to 2007, less than a month after the release of Boxer, and the 400 Bar is packed; I’m talking no room to move, no room to clap your hands, no room to breathe. Granted, the 400 Bar was a hole in the wall of a venue, but it was bursting at the seams on a balmy June night as The National huddled on the small stage, amazed at the size of the crowd they drew. A few months later, when they returned on a victory lap, they played the exponentially larger Fine Line Music Café—another sold out show.
A lot of albums released in 2007 haven’t aged very well, and many albums released ten years ago are probably not albums you are still listening today—like Feist’s The Reminder. When was the last time you listened to The Reminder? Or Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga?
Not only is Boxer an incredibly important album for the career of The National, it’s also a rare “indie” album that time has been kind to. It still holds up, and it holds up very well—it’s a dark, nearly claustrophobic album, created in a state of anxiety, as depicted in the experimental and unwatchable documentary about the album, A Skin, A Night, released the following year.
The National started out humbly in the year 2001; they were never “alt. country,” but that’s how they were billed initially, it took them a few years before they matured, easing into their sound and the dynamic between the band’s sonics, and Berninger’s evocative, fragmented lyrics.
It starts to take shape with the 2004 EP, Cherry Tree, and for the most part, they had figured things out by the time Alligator arrived—focusing on the interplay between the Dessner brothers’ guitars, the hypnotic percussive rhythms of drummer Bryan Devendorf, and the unnerving presence of Berninger as the band’s reluctant frontman.
A bulk of The National’s music could be described as “slow burning,” and a majority of Boxer burns as slowly as it can—right from the beginning, it requires patience and time to build as the iconic opening track, “Fake Empire,” quietly introduces itself.
What a song, right? It’s such an auspicious way to open up the record. It has so many moving pieces and at first, it seems like it’s not going to work—like they aren’t going to really fit together in any way that makes sense.
The discreet string arrangement, the somber piano playing courtesy of Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett, and Berninger’s vocals are eventually joined by the twinkling guitars of the Dessners and it all fumbles together to find a rhythm you weren’t quite confident was really there. The proof is only when Devendorf arrives with his intricate work on the drum kit in the song’s second half that carries you to the triumphant and bombastic ending.
Boxer’s first half works especially hard to create the aforementioned tension through the metallic clanging guitar chugs and shadowy, lonely imagery in “Mistake for Strangers”; the rolling, cavernous, and mumbly “Brainy”; and the driving, stark, and mantra-esq “Squalor Victoria,” a song that is often chided for the relative tameness of its studio version in comparison to the unhinged and volatile nature of its live performances.
The sequencing on Boxer is nearly immaculate. It’s not a perfect album, but with the twelve songs they selected1 for the record, they are perfectly organized. The band knows when to pull back, and when to take it up another notch—all of it cloaked in shadow and an inescapable feeling of unease.
There’s the slight reprieve of “Green Gloves,” which gradually builds things back up with the charming “Slow Show,” before heading into the album’s second half with the equally as charming, if not slightly melancholic “Apartment Story.”
That give and take between the pensive and reflective, juxtaposed with the near anthemic continues right thorough to the end of the album, with the dramatic build of “Ada,” paired with the reserved, somber “Gospel.”
One of the elements that drew people to The National during the Alligator and Boxer phase was Berninger’s lyrics. He became more direct on subsequent albums (becoming most direct on Trouble Will Find Me); but here, he’s mastered the art of the hyper-literate, brainy rock lyric. Even the more direct songs on here, like “Apartment Story,” are filled with rich imagery: “I’ll be with you behind the couch when they come on a different day just like this one,” he croons in his low speak/sing tone before the song’s refrain arrives.
Take your pick of quotable and memorable lyrics on this thing: Let’s not try to figure out everything at once; Falling out of touch with all my/friends are somewhere getting wasted; I’ll get money I’ll get funny again, and They’re gonna send us to prison for jerks are just a few that come to mind right away.
Boxer may truly be the last time that Berninger’s lyrics were almost all shrouded in this kind of heavy metaphor and near dream-like fragments of imagery. It’s also the last time he recycled phrases—the coda to “Slow Show” is borrowed from a song on the band’s first record, and the hilarious “Sometimes you get up and bake a cake or something, Sometimes you just stay in bed” line in “Racing Like A Pro” is ripped from a non-album track, “Minor Stars of Rome.”
Here, there are also still occasional references to books Berninger has read. In the early days of the band (around Alligator and Boxer) he was often asked what he was reading, and it introduced me to a lot of authors I otherwise would have slept on. One of them was Jonathan Ames—Ames himself uses the expression twice, in two different books, but here, Berninger borrows “Showered and blue blazered” in “Mistaken For Strangers.”
Looking at Boxer ten years after its release, outside from the reminder (as if I needed one) of how good of a record this is, has provided me the opportunity to revisit a different time in my life. When this album was released, I was 23 going on 24; my wife and I weren’t married—just living together in a cramped, kind of dumpy, one-bedroom apartment, and we were both working mundane office jobs that had offered really no place for advancement.
This was before living with companion rabbits, before “The Bearded Life,” before this blog, before we were vegans, even before my wife was a vegetarian. On weekends we either watched movies, or escaped to the bustling metropolis of Minneapolis to visit our friend Carrie, who was enjoying life as a young urbanite in a trendy neighborhood.
For me, Boxer was, and still is, an album about trying to figure out that space and time when you don’t want to call yourself an adult quite yet, but you are a few years out of college and people are starting to expect things out of you. I think that is why the song “Apartment Story” spoke to me the most back then—for me, it was a song about navigating this “young adulthood” with a partner. It’s a sentimental song for me. I cringe a little now, but I quoted it (while getting choked up and crying a little) during the speech I gave at our wedding reception. I also requested that it be played during our dance, and I seem to remember it nearly clearing the floor.
My wife didn’t always like The National, but it was this album that made her a believer, and it’s one of those “indie” record we played a lot in 2007 that neither of us grew weary of (I can’t say the same for The Reminder. Sorry Feist.) Long removed from the 24 year old I was back then, Boxer is both the soundtrack for a quaint look back at a time that doesn’t seem like it was truly a decade ago, as well as an important and thought provoking album from a band that had successfully navigated that aforementioned “young adulthood” and saw this as their ticket out.
1- It seems worth mentioning that many of the b-sides for this record are as good, if not better, than the tracks that wound up on the final album, including the gorgeous “Santa Clara” and the haunting “Tall Saint.”
If you don't have Boxer, which seems like a crime, it's still readily available via Beggars/4AD.