The National


(Beggar's Banquet; 2007)

By Craig Eley | 19 August 2007

Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises begins with a sentence that Tom Bissell has said "ranks among literature's great misdirects": "Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton." The novel is really about Lady Ashley and the (self-)destruction of her suitors, the unsatisfying life of the wealthy and bored, and a guy who can no longer use his dick.

Similarly, while in name the National's new album laces up its gloves, in practice it dances around the outside of the ring, choosing ballet over blunt force to reveal the poetics of very small battles. The album is successful in this regard because singer/writer Matt Berninger's literary aspirations never suggests the kind of pretension that defines most other bands to whom an [insert author here] comparison might be apt. In fact, Berninger explicitly rejects the title of "poet" or even "commentator," saying in album standout "Slow Show" that he would be perfectly happy putting on a "slow dumb show" for his girl and cracking her up. It's misdirection, of course: the National don't want to crack us up any more than they want to spar with us; their intelligence and linguistic playfulness expose very real cracks in the daily experience of relationships (read: insecurities about masculinity), American identity (specifically the flawed rhetoric of war in a media-saturated society), and intellectualism.

On Boxer the action in the foreground is all post-9/11 twentysomething worries and romance, but the undercurrent is darker and more sinister. Lyrically the album is both radiant and obscure, beautiful and frightening, sensual and repulsive; tying Berninger's words to dramatic and emotional music turns damn-near every song into an anthem. "Apartment Story" has grinding, fuzzy guitar undercurrents and metronomic drums; these support Berninger's deliciously smooth baritone while added keyboards, strikingly high in the mix, create a soundtrack for the two contemporary technoculture zombies he describes that "do whatever the TV tells us." The empty reassurance that brings the song to its dramatic conclusion ("We'll be alright / We have our looks / And our perfume on") is beautifully effective against its fist-pumping sing-along backdrop.

"Start A War" follows with a complete 180, lilting acoustic guitars counterbalancing Berninger's biting and tragic description of the future. This reveals a bleak present: "I'll get money / I'll be funny again." The song is the best example on the album of the way he can make repetition meaningful. The words escape more than they are delivered; cycling them around and around allows us to comprehend their shape more than capture their meaning. And Berninger is both deliberate and obtuse with meanings; though much of the album is about war the song that actually has that word in the title is the song that avoids any specific political statement about it. "Start a War" is about something lost, something hoped to be regained, though what that something is he doesn't state. If there is one thing that might be wrong with this album -- besides an uneventful last third -- is that the album might be too tailor-made for music critics worn out by music fatigue, hype fatigue, and irony fatigue. A recent conversation with someone who knows I'm a music writer ended with him saying, "I'm just tired of new music, but I like the National."

On the other hand, maybe this isn't very "new" at all. As much as I love Hemingway and Berninger's ability to talk about their dicks, the album feels, at times, like the sentiments of intelligent and insecure dudes set to music. And that's definitely nothing new: boxing has always been a ready metaphor for singers as well as writers deeply concerned with masculinity, from Hemingway to Simon & Garfunkel to Ben Folds Five. Still, whatever their literary shortcomings, the National have somehow tapped into a voice distinct enough to represent the feelings of many. As they sing on "Green Gloves," they have the ability to "get inside their heads / Love their loves."