I was scanning through the channels on the XM radio, on a hellish commute that I made 2,627 times. I have no idea if that number is exaggerated or not. The truth is, I don’t really want to know. Scanning the radio channels streamed down from space, because the ones streamed from land are terrible. I stopped on XMU (Shameless plug), the indie music channel, and one of my favorites. I stopped because the buzz in my ear was appealing. The display said it was, “Mistaken for Strangers”, the artist, The National. The song finished, and as I’m prone to do, I said, “Damn, that’s a good tune.” I did say this aloud and didn’t think it. In my car, there is no internal dialog (Like an unfrozen Austin Powers), everything is out in the open. If the steering wheel, seats, or any other inanimate object in my car could talk, well, I’d go to a special place with a bunch of white walls and get handed pills in little white cups. That actually sounds restful and not at all terrible. I need a conductor to keep this thought train on the tracks. It was five years ago when this rhythmic incident resonated with me. How could I possibly remember this was five years ago? Well, the DJ then spun another National tune and I was hooked. I needed to get this album. Yes kids, I said, album. I got home, scoured the interwebs, okay, I think I just went to iTunes, and downloaded Boxer on what tuned out to be its release date (This is how I know it was five years ago today). I realized the second song heard that day was not on Boxer, it was on, the National’s third album Alligator. I went ahead and got both albums. I don’t normally procure music in this fashion. I need to hear a few songs, let them bounce around inside me, and then when I can’t get it out of my mind, go get it. There’s something about Matt Berninger’s lyrics and the dreamlike, melodic sound, (I’m doing my best to talk about music and not use, ethereal) that is instant poetry to me.
The first chords on opener “Fake Empire”, the National create a feeling of euphoric emptiness. However, as the song progresses, the emptiness starts to melt, and now comes the feeling of someone special in your life. The accompaniment is not ideal but it makes life bearable. It ends, with that feeling you get late at night, the one where you’re quite certian will go away when you wake up. Well, that’s what it means to me, some people think it’s all about politics. This song always reminds me of my dear friend Kelly (One of the few that I’ve been able to convert to National fandom). Her love of the band and this song makes me think of her, but more importantly, she was there (though miles away) to help with a difficult period of my life. She never judged, never criticized, only offered advice and assistance when I asked for it. What was most important, she gave me this e-sanctuary to let me come undone. I’ll never forget it and always love her for that. In some ways it was more real than any place I’ve ever been, but it also lived in our imagination…a Fake Empire if you will.
The 11 tracks that follow “Fake Empire” make Boxer a complete album. “Mistaken for Strangers”, ”Squalor Victoria”, and “Racing Like a Pro” leave an uneasy feeling. They give off the fear of being stuck in a career/life that you’re not meant to be in. The frustration is obvious and amplified in parts of these songs, then muted, and at times a bit muddled. My favorite example is on “Squalor Victoria”, “Out of my league/ I have birds in my sleeves/ And I wanna rush in with the fools”. It portrays that feeling of not belonging where you are, but there is a talent inside that you have to get out. Matt’s obvious talent is to be a singer/songwriter. This speaks to me as someone in a corporate job, wanting to get out, wanting to get out and write. I feel and live that frustration.
The rest of Boxer is about relationships and the complexity of them. In ”Green Gloves”, I believe the focus turns to his friends, and seems to be somewhat jealous he can’t be with them like he use to be. He hopes they are well, he still loves them, but there is a hint of wanting it to be like it used to be. The song, “Brainy” sounds a bit stalkerish, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t come off as stalker creepy. I can’t do it justice, you’ll just have to listen. On ”Apartment Story” and “Guest Room”, the couple seems upbeat but they are definitely hiding from the world. The world outside is their undoing and if they hide, nothing can happen to them. Matt does hint at this in “Guest Room”, “We can’t stay here/ We’re starting to stay the same/ We can’t stay here/ We can’t stay this way”. You can only hide for so long and on, “Ada” and “Start a War” the cracks start to show. On “Start a War”, there’s desperation, but it gives one of my favorite lines, “Whatever went away, I’ll get it over now/ I’ll get money, I’ll get funny again”. The album ends with, “Gospel”. The song, though ambiguous, leads me to believe the couple survive, “Hang your holiday rainbow lights/ In the garden/ And I’ll/ I’ll bring a nice icy drink to you”.
The most beautiful and difficult song for me is, “Slow Show”. I’ve never heard a song so accurately depict what is racing around my little mind, it is frightening in its accuracy. I get upset I didn’t write it, and upset I can’t articulate my thoughts in this manner. There are times when it cripples me and times when I want it to. There are times when I can’t even deal with it. For me, the song is my relationship with Jocelyn. The chorus is the only thing I ever wanted: “I want to hurry home to you/ Put on a slow dumb show for you/ And crack you up/ So you can put a blue ribbon on my brain/ God, I’m very, very frightening/ I’ll overdo it.” But that’s not even the part that punches me in the face, the tears are in the sing-song part at the end, the coda (I just had to look that up): “You know I dreamed about you/ For 29 years, before I saw you/ You know I dreamed about you/ I missed you for, for 29 years”. I first met and realized that she was what I was looking for in womanhood when I was 29. Of course, we didn’t start dating until I was 30. And even then, I was a mess, and she had to deal with a year of me getting my shit together. Still, deep down, I knew that’s what I was missing for 29 years. I had enough smarts to spend 8 years with her, and then more lyrics from the beginning of the song, “I made a mistake in my life today/ Everything I love gets lost in drawers/ I want to start over, I want to be winning/ Way out of sync from the beginning.” Unfortunately, that is me, always in my own fucking way. I missed her for 29 years, then 8 together, some days it feels like I might miss her for 29 more. Fuck, 58 years is a lot of missing.
I had never heard of The National, before that day five years ago, but since I downloaded Boxer, I don’t believe it has left my side. It has been on my iPod or iPhone every step of the way. The album is the perfect soundtrack to my thoughts and lack of thoughts. Matt’s baritone voice, with a parring of two sets of talented brothers; Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s guitar mastery, Bryan Devendorf kills it on the drums, and Scott Devendorf’s subtle bass lines. These five have put together an impressive three album string with: Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet. The three togther can get me through almost any moment in my life. However, it was Boxer that intoduced me to them, and it is Boxer, that remains my emotional crutch.