THE NATIONAL: Fighting on the Ropes

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Tapped to join what arguably has been the most coveted road show this year-openers for beloved rock messiah Arcade Fire-singer Matt Berninger of New York outfit The National said the spot gave their latest record, Boxer, a promotional golden ticket.

Tapped to join what arguably has been the most coveted road show this year-openers for beloved rock messiah Arcade Fire-singer Matt Berninger of New York outfit The National said the spot gave their latest record, Boxer, a promotional golden ticket.

“The shows were sold out before we were even asked to support the tour,” he said. “It was a no-lose situation.” Couple that with the overwhelming response to the band’s previous release, Alligator (they topped a number of well-respected ‘05 end-of-year lists), and Berninger insists all the more that the band’s follow-up was no lurched effort.

“We were all trying to push the songs in different directions,” he said. “We always have that push-and-pull alchemy. There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen working on Boxer.” That includes outside help from My Brightest Diamond’s Marla Hansen on backing vocals, piano rushes from longtime friend Sufjan Stevens and the group’s reserve violinist and all-around orchestral sage, Padma Newsome-a virtual sixth member and regular face on tour since first contributing to sophomore effort Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers.

Although no spar-happy character is specified anywhere on the album, nor any bare-knuckled imagery that would explain the album’s moniker, Boxer actually earned its handle from Berninger’s muse and girlfriend of three years, who suggested the name towards the end of a five-month recording session.

“There’s not a huge intelligent design behind [the title], really,” he admits. “The characters in the songs are all struggling or beaten down in some ways…and kind of worn out. They’re in the middle of some sort of crossroads.” In one corner on “Racing like a Pro,” we see a sketch of a middle-class success story whose “15 blue shirts and womanly hands” wrinkle in retrospect to his distant years as a “glowing young ruffian.” Opposite of him is the self-aggrandized Cinderella on “Green Gloves,” who prides herself on being “the greatest slow-dancer in the universe.”

“I think the characters are self-indulgent; they’re all kind of silly, or awkward and drunken,” Berninger explains. “That’s just my nature when I’m sitting down writing lyrics to a song and I dig into their sometimes ugly, awkward or embarrassing obsessions.”

But counter to similarly egotistical personalities that speak on their previous records-gloating about being carried in the arms of cheerleaders, stating bluntly, “I’m a perfect piece of ass”-Berninger said his ringleaders on Boxer show a slightly more introspective temper. “I can’t say they’re any more mature, but the nature of the issues are more subtle,” he said. “There’s still a lot of that slightly ridiculous fantasy self-image. Still a little over the top…but some of the themes are more [concerned with] the subtle shadows of relationships.”

Much the same can be said for Boxer‘s more consistent musical concepts, which spend its 43 minutes without the highs of Alligator‘s rock out track “Mr. November” or the somber lows of “Daughters of the SoHo Riots.” “The only thing that is different in any way is that there’s no screaming,” Berninger laughs. “It works well when it works, but on this record it didn’t seem like a significant thing that we had to make sure we had in there. If we had, it would have been forced.”

For the same reason, even up-tempo tracks like “Mistaken for Strangers” or “Brainy” soften their punch with even-toned guitar blurts and plush piano interludes. Or to put it as a simple analogy, Berninger says, “If Alligator was more of a rollercoaster, Boxer is more of a boat ride.”


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