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No hits and no misses from ‘Boxer’

‘Boxer’ won’t hook you with quick chords and cheap lines, but these songs aren’t likely to leave your iTunes for some time

Much of the content buried beneath “Boxer,” Brooklyn-based quartet The National’s fourth outing, details a pure and desperate struggle against indifference. And rightfully so. C’mon, admit it – their name alone sounds like it should belong to that one obnoxious pop-punk band that was too drunk on Schnapps to play their prom gig. But maybe that’s just me – I’m a jerk who too often judges on moniker alone.

The National

ALBUM: Boxer
LABEL: Beggars Banquet

Even after the most surface of surface observations, however, a little cozying up to this coldly named band is required, as “Boxer” is a record that approaches timidly. The lyrics at first seem dense in their nonsensicality, their repetitive insistence of presumably insignificant details. Then, there’s the music that structures them: Rather than charge headfirst into the obviously captivating, it tends to slyly dart away from divulging any money-shot hooks too soon.

“Boxer” is the type that gradually unfolds into a story-like song collection peppered with unexpected surprises. And though The National weaves a dark, dreamy blend of orchestrated no-wave rock teeming with grim sarcasm and rampant existentialism, “Boxer” is an album smart enough to subdue its intensity – think not of an over-exaggerated sob, but rather that brand of eerie silence often paired alongside our deepest distresses.

From the first piano chords of opening track “Fake Empire,” singer Matt Berninger paints for us a late-night mood slightly sinister in its remoteness. The scene is vaguely reminiscent of the most forlorn of last calls, when the lights are dimming at the dive bar and patrons are frantically trying to pair because no one wants to go home alone when the world is such a damn mess.

“Boxer’s” got that gloom through and throughout, no doubt about it. Well before the last of the album’s 12 tracks, Berninger has already waded through a small ocean of personal predicaments.

We have the irrational but unshakeable American-brand angst, most obvious in “Racing Like A Pro” where he croons of trying to avoid soulless, seemingly inevitable yuppie transformation (“I’m a professional/ in my beloved white shirt”). Meanwhile, his solace in human contact also crumbles: The gorgeous “Apartment Story” details a couple’s shared space being overthrown by relationship demons, while “Green Gloves” laments of once-indestructible friendships that have since faded into obscurity.

Despite all this nervous tension and anxiety, the musical arrangements seem to insist that The National buckle down and soldier on. Berninger boasts an unexpectedly sobering baritone that allows him to critique with an added layer of tragic romance and even, at times, subtle dry humor. When he sings of stalking a special someone ’round town on “Brainy,” his guttural observations convince you he’s got good reason to do so.

Drummer Bryan Devendorf demands (and deserves) a top billing, propelling the band forward with the type of rhythms that bestow even the most stale songs with a fluttering human heartbeat.

The string and horn arrangements are another element that enlivens the band’s ambience on “Boxer” with subtle emotion, a thankful addition to an album already well composed. A muted trumpet melody or a swirl of violins know their roles well, waltzing in at opportune times as if to provide a glimmer of hope in such a panicky state. Even on quieter numbers like the fluttery, devastatingly beautiful “Ada” (in which good ole’ Sufjan Stevens lends his ivory-tickling expertise), The National prove they can pack a hefty punch.

Here, investment is key. The very best moments of “Boxer” might creep in and out unnoticed at first, but over time continue adding weight until they throb with familiar, necessary energy. Once they finally reveal themselves, you’ll be left short of breath, and cursing yourself for ever thinking otherwise.

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