On Monday, the fourth album by The National, 2007’s Boxer, turns 10. For many National fans, Boxer is the band’s best record. But have we really given this question the proper amount of thought? After all, The National is the rare band with multiple records worthy of being called “best.” Even the forthcoming Sleep Well Beast, due in September, might eventually earn that distinction.
Before we jump the gun and making any major declarations here, let’s walk through The National’s discography and settle this once and for all.
Boxer vs. The National (2001) and Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers (2003)
The first two National albums are usually grouped together as “the ones that most people don’t care about.” This is unfair to Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, which is actually a pretty good record. (“Available” is a top 10 banger in the band’s catalog.) But without question, these LPs derive from an era in which The National was either ignored by the press or dismissed as also-rans in an early ’00s NYC music scene dominated by flashier (though ultimately less durable) bands like The Strokes, Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
In Lizzy Goodman’s forthcoming oral history of post-9/11 New York rock, Meet Me In The Bathroom, there’s a funny anecdote about how the National rented rehearsal space next door to Interpol right when Turn On The Bright Lights became an indie phenomenon. “A month later Spin magazine was doing a big feature on them and photographed them in the hallway of this practice space,” singer Matt Berninger says. “They had, like, props and balloons set up and we had to kind of weave around. They had their suits on and we had our khaki pants and our work shirts.”
Berninger goes on to describe the experience of watching his band’s peers blow up as The National remained mired in hopeless obscurity as “humiliating but motivating.” Years later, when I interviewed Berninger right before the release of 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me as The National reigned as the most popular New York City rock band derived from that fruitful early ’00s period, he was still haunted by how the coolness of The National’s buzzier rivals had once made them feel worthless. (In the space of a 75-minute conversation, Berninger brought up the Strokes unprompted six times.)
But there’s little doubt now that the National’s slow build (vs. the meteoric rise and swift decline of the Strokes and Interpol) ultimately made them a better and more stable band. In that light, The National and Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers are best appreciated as rough drafts for the superior records that followed. In the case of “Twenty Nine” from The National, the song is a literal rough draft for the Boxer highlight “Slow Show,” which revives “Twenty Nine” during its beguiling climax.
Boxer vs. Alligator (2005)
If your favorite National record is Alligator, one or more of the following three things are true:
1) You’ve been a National fan for more than 10 years.
2) You wish Berninger screamed more on subsequent National records.
3) You had a life-changing emotional trauma in 2005 that Alligator helped you survive.
For most of my tenure as a National fan, I grouped Alligator with the other National 2.0 albums. Most people agree that Allilgator is the National’s first great LP, so it seemed to fit with the band’s ongoing “classic” era rather than the “formative” era represented by The National and Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers. However, upon further investigation it’s clear that Alligator is actually the culmination of National 1.0, a “third time’s the charm” breakthrough in which the band figured out how to make the best possible version of the first two records.
The National has always been self-conscious about making albums that react in some way against the previous album. With Alligator, the band entered the studio with a sizable collection of completed songs, and focused more than ever on self-editing. “I think on Sad Songs the songs are a little more obvious about what they’re about,” Berninger told Pitchfork in 2006. “One thing that I was trying do with Alligator is cut out any lyrics that sounded like obvious statements or big lyrical ideas. The big ALL CAPS lines or lyrics only sound good once.”
The appeal of Alligator is that the album presents The National in its least fussy and most rock-oriented guise, while at the same time offering songs that reveal themselves over the course of many listens in the manner of The National’s best work. There is very little fat to the songwriting or arrangements on Alligator — songs like “Abel,” “Secret Meeting,” and the sublime “All The Wine” remain some of the most accessible gateways for neophytes. Even now, it’s probably the most likable National record. It’s the one you want to hear when you’re drinking whiskey.
But is it better than Boxer? Ask me on a different day, and I might say yes. But for now here’s my case for Boxer: The National invented who they are with that record. The primacy of Alligator feels more like an end to what The National used to be, whereas the lusher and more orchestrated Boxer set a template that every subsequent National album has followed.
Boxer vs. High Violet (2010)
High Violet can be problematic if you’re a Boxer partisan because The National at this time was intent on making an album that went against Boxer‘s strengths. Whereas Boxer is spacious, uncluttered, and restrained, High Violet is “a cathartic, sonic explosion,” as Berninger put it to me in 2010. “Musically is where that tension release happens on this record; it doesn’t do it with me screaming. It was a reaction to Boxer… we had a lot of confidence.”
Perhaps The National had a lot of confidence after the album was released. But the making of High Violet was famously tortured and riddled with second guessing. With Boxer, The National’s method of making albums became much more deliberative, if not downright combative. But High Violet took it to a new level of self-abuse. While working on High Violet, The National cycled through dozens of re-writes on even seemingly simple songs like “Lemonworld,” which was thoroughly poked and prodded over the course of 80 takes. “Versions of the song had been fragged for being really annoying, really bombastic, really boring, really cheesy, too destabilized, really meatball, really saccharine, too sludgefest, too Dave Matthews swank and too all-fancy razzle-dazzle,” the New York Times Magazine reported.
When The National assembled to start recording Boxer in late spring of 2006, they were exhausted from touring in support of Alligator and feeling pressure to equal their first successful album. Unfortunately, The National had precisely zero songs ready to go for their highest profile album to date. Even after working every day throughout the summer at producer Peter Katis’ Tarquin Studios in Bridgeport, Connecticut —
where parts of Alligator had had been recorded, as well as Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights — precious little progress had been made.
“By that point we’d spent more than 70 percent of the recording budget and we had less than half of an album, and we’d all lost our minds,” guitarist Aaron Dessner told Drowned in Sound in 2007.
The National regrouped the following winter, and proceeded to re-record much of the album in Aaron Dessner’s attic, along with writing new material. They elected composer and long-time associate Padma Newsome to write a fanfare to conclude “Fake Empire,” which had been languishing unfinished for months. Other tunes weren’t completed until the very last minute — “Squalor Victoria” didn’t have lyrics until the night before the album was mastered, and “Brainy” included a coda that the band finally elected to remove.
The difference between Boxer and High Violet is that Boxer doesn’t sound labored and High Violet absolutely sounds labored. I have a love-hate relationship with High Violet — I love the songs, and I hate the production and some of the overcooked arrangements. Compare the weirdly neutered album version of “Terrible Love” to this incredible pre-release performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, which I sometimes think is the best The National has ever sounded. If I didn’t love The National for writing “Terrible Love,” I’d seek to prosecute them for nearly killing such a great song on High Violet.
Boxer vs. Trouble Will Find Me (2013)
If the grandiosity of High Violet was a reaction to the introspection of Boxer, then the relaxed and assured Trouble Will Find Me feels like a corrective for the overwrought excesses of High Violet. It’s a cliche to describe a National album as a “slow burn,” but Trouble Will Find Me is truly an album that seemed good in 2013, really good in 2014, great in 2015, excellent in 2016, and a serious contender for the best National album in 2017.
I never thought I’d say this when Trouble Will Find Me came out, but at this point it is neck and neck with Alligator on my personal list of favorite National albums. This no doubt is in part a reflection of my age — I’m at a moment in my life where I’m more likely to quietly jam on “Pink Rabbits” and “This Is The Last Time” while sipping an IPA than slamming shots while blasting “Mr. November.” But, like Boxer,Trouble Will Find Me is a near-perfect showcase for everything that’s good about the National — the sound of Berninger’s voice (see “Demons”), the evocative textures of Aaron and Bryce’s Dessner’s guitars (see “Humiliation”), and the dynamism of Bryan Devendorf’s drumming, long the National’s secret lead instrument (see “Graceless,” “Sea Of Love,” and “Don’t Swallow The Cap.”)
(I have not forgotten Scott Devendorf — his bass playing is always steady, and his glasses are consistently workmanlike.)
But as much as I’ve grown to love Trouble Will Find Me, Boxer still gets the edge, because it did all of those things first. Boxer remains the pivotal moment in The National’s career — it’s where they imagined the kind of band they wanted to be moving forward. If Boxer had faltered — and given how the record was made, it very nearly was a creative failure — The National would be remembered by only a select few Alligator stans impotently insisting that the band’s potential ultimately exceeded its grasp. Instead, The National stands as perhaps the best American rock band of the last 10 years, and hopefully beyond.