Who, if I screamed, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them
took me suddenly to his heart: I would die from his
potent Being. For the Beautiful is nothing
but the onset of the Terror we can scarcely endure,
and we are fascinated because it calmly disdains
to obliterate us. Every angel is terrifying.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, The First Elegy (trans. Leslie Norris and Alan Keele)
No art is created without effort—but much of what artists create tricks us into thinking it so. And even though the road to nearly every polished piece is paved with careful editing and pangs of self-doubt, there are certainly moments in the act of creation where giving form to thought does feel effortless. We live for the moment when we enter “flow”—the insufferable TED talk term for one of the best feelings our brains and bodies can muster: where everything but you and what you’re working on recedes into the background and the process of bringing your ideas into the world feels easy—like transcribing the voice of God itself, a metaphor everyone from Rainer Maria Rilke to Kanye West has ascribed to their creative process.
Anyway, none of the National’s music sounds like it came easy.
Matt Berninger’s melted Brie voice, the mechanically precise rhythm section, the creepy twin magic of the Brothers Dessner: the National are a Harlem Globetrotters of a band, yet in each song, you can hear a frustrated and relentless push toward perfection, the multiple takes spent chasing down the platonic ideal of a phrase or arrangement, blinking cursors and anxious rewrites. They seem both terrified of—and grateful for—their ability to create, what they’ve created, and the success their creation has earned them. They seem like they spend too much time in their own heads, but let you know it in a way that feels generous, not self-centered and alienating. They are immediately, heartbreakingly recognizable and relatable: the products of a generation terrified of not living up to their own expectations or the expectations of others, with only the vaguest idea of what those expectations might be. Stars! They’re just like us!
Alligator might be my favorite National album, but Boxer is their best album. It is their most fully articulated expression of what it’s like to experience the world in this way: the feeling that you haunt your own life, the drive to participate in a system you know will fail you, working too hard only to be rewarded with an existential crisis of byzantine complexity. Living is an incredible gift that exacts its price. Every angel is terrifying.
Boxer’s hyperfocus on describing the experience of alienation extends directly to the sound the National cultivate. The album sounds like being on the outside looking in; even some of the warmer songs like “Gospel” have a chilly quality, and the arrangements are imbued with a precision that creates a distance between Berninger and his own words. It’s not a distance you can measure spatially: It’s the distance that exists in his head and in all of our heads, between ourselves and our self-awareness. Berninger sings from the perspective of the naysayer voice in his brain, an anxious angel on his shoulder, undercutting or overthinking his own decisions.
This quality in his songwriting makes even more sense in the context of Berninger’s pre-indie rock stardom career, when he worked as a creative director at an advertising agency. The band’s already firm grip on my heart tightened when I learned that was his job—and moreover, that he kind of hated that job. I, too, have a career that centers on making creative work to satisfy others’ tastes, and it is difficult and weird and sometimes awful. You are caught in an unnatural balancing act, trying to bring something into the world that you know is good and will achieve your client’s goals while surrendering the final say in the creative process to your clients—who are often not great at communicating what they need and don’t have the skills to do what you can do but determine the ultimate shape of the work anyway. Creating for others for a living is a life sentence for permanently being in your own head, because although all creative work demands self-editing and self-awareness, when you create for yourself, that self-awareness is part of your SELF: not a strange voice in your head that represents your perceptions of what other people will think of your work. It is a strange twist in the creative process—one that I can personally say has done permanent damage to my self-confidence, and one that sounds like it’s done a similar number on Berninger. It’s part of the reason why the songs on Boxer feel so uncomfortably intimate: It feels like being privy to the gladiator match between Self and Crippling Self-Awareness in Berninger’s head.
The degree to which the songs on Boxer sound like being in someone’s head is their best-worst quality. Yes, it brings you closer as a listener—triggering sympathy and empathy in equal measure—but it also means lyrics filled with half-formed thoughts and obtuse metaphors, a man circling around a point he hasn’t yet figured out, or figured out how to communicate, in a way that leaps the chasm between Evocative Writing and Lucid Writing. In “Ada,” he’s standing inside an empty tuxedo with grapes in his mouth; in “Squalor Victoria” she’s out of his league, he has birds in his sleeves and he wants to rush in with the fools.
Yet almost every song on Boxer rewards you for meditating on these situations with a thought that’s perfectly and powerfully stated. On “Slow Show,” he ends an anxious, fumbling expression of love with the heart-melter “You know I dreamed about you/ For 29 years before I saw you.” On “Brainy,” inarticulate rambling about obsession comes into sharp focus with the thrilling but threatening “You might need me more than you think you will.” On “Fake Empire,” he nails the album’s m.o.: “Let’s not try to figure out everything at once.”
The songs mimic the experience of listening to a friend talk their way in real-time toward a conclusion. It’s an intimate experience, peeking into someone’s head as they fumble their way toward clarity, and this is one of the reasons why it’s easy to connect with the songs on Boxer; as solipsistic as they are, they are written to let you into these situations, generously involving you rather than casting you in the role of a vessel into which they can pour their problems. It’s inclusive, not alienating. And it’s a good strategy for those who feel alienated, too: only the connection that comes with honest communication can cure it. Why do people sing along to another person's song? It’s because they're singing about something that's bothering them and bothering everybody in the room.
The very obvious reason why Boxer connected with so many people is because it grapples with the central crisis that haunts every successful, relatively affluent young adult in America for whom the bottom two-fifths of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are met: that is, you can make all the “right” decisions about your life and still end up feeling miserable and unfulfilled. Each learns the boring but necessary lesson that becoming a professional in your beloved white shirt, or standing showered and blue-blazered under the silvery Citibank lights, or any other superficial marker of success does not guarantee happiness. Boxer never lets you forget this—or forget that time creates distance that destroys, whether your own friends stop recognizing you (“Mistaken for Strangers”), your relationship stops living up to your expectations (“Start A War,” “Guest Room”), or the only recourse you have to reconnect with those you once loved is to mimic their actions, hoping to create the illusion of closeness through a sad reenactment of their lives (“Green Gloves”).
Berninger was in his mid-30s while writing the songs that became Boxer: the age where each of us has followed enough of the prescribed formula for happiness and success to truly understand that the formula is flawed; has lived long enough (and has enough people depending on us) to know that the fear of something awful right around the corner isn’t unfounded; and has experienced the paralysis caused by a combination of anxiety and apathy. These are your struggles when your life itself really isn’t a struggle. But they are a struggle nonetheless.
In this way Boxer is very much an album of its time: living in America in the waning years of the second Bush administration was a clash between a nagging dissatisfaction in the face of a fairly comfortable life, the understanding that a foundation that seems somewhat solid for so many of us could shift at any moment, and a listlessness that stemmed equally from “Why bother?” and “It won’t matter anyway.” Things had gotten bad, but most of the worst of it was far away geographically, our economy was a year away from collapsing completely, and if you were having an easy life to begin with, you could continue to do so and calculatedly shut out the rest of the world. Many had the luxury of living half-awake in our fake empire—and to wit, Boxer is bookended by two songs about people distracting themselves from the problems at hand with pleasantries and mindless activities, with a whole bunch of roiling discontent sandwiched in the middle.
Boxer is an album about proximity: to happiness, to success, to good relationships, to lives that live up to the lives we imagined for ourselves. It’s all inseparable from the band’s own slow ascendance to fame, and the pressure they applied to themselves (and that others applied to them) in bringing Boxer to life. The National started recording Boxer in late spring of 2006, coming off an exhausting tour in support of Alligator and finding themselves under pressure to match or exceed the quality of that album—their first big success as a band. But they had no songs in the hopper—and work was slow, to say the least. Says Steven Hyden in Uproxx:
“Even after working every day throughout the summer at producer Peter Katis’ Tarquin Studios in Bridgeport, Connecticut, 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.”
That element of restlessness infuses Boxer’s sound, from its distinctive and complex drum phrasing, to its rich but subtle orchestration. The Brothers Dessner, Aaron and Bryce, and the Brothers Devendorf, Bryan and Scott, created the platonic ideal of what Good Indie Rock sounded like in the mid-aughts—and did so under tremendous scrutiny, at the very last minute, and with some masterful eleventh-hour collaborations: Newsome’s magnificent, polyrhythm-rich coda to “Fake Empire,” Sufjan Stevens’ distinctive piano in “Ada.”
Boxer threatened to be the moment the National dropped the ball and flamed out, but ended up becoming the moment they secured their place in the canon. And for a band that worked so hard for so long to achieve what they’d achieved, this moment was all the more fraught with anxiety. People who achieve recognition or fame later in life always seem to approach their success from a cautious (and arguably wiser) perspective, never taking what they’ve earned for granted and operating with an understanding that what they have could disappear at any moment. I’ve always appreciated how refreshingly candid the band have been about their struggles, letting us see and understand that neither their success nor their music sprang into being fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. They seem eternally grateful, aware that inspiration and success are both ephemeral—and not at all embarrassed of how they slogged through the mud to get where they are. Even now, when you watch the band perform or hear them talk about their music, it feels like looking 15 years into the past—like they’re still the same men touring Ohio, playing shows to 20 family members.
Boxer may be an album of its time, a tidy encapsulation of a certain type of experience in America’s late George W. Bush years—but there are aspects of its depiction of young adulthood that feel quite relevant today. Even though more of us are living mostly woke (rather than half-awake) in our fake empire, from the ways we’re sold the lie that a successful life depends on chasing down college educations that ensnare us in lifelong debt and tether us to “good” jobs we hate but must keep, to feeling permanently stuck because we kind of are, thanks to the systems that plot out the course of our lives and leave little room for upward (or even sideways) mobility, the central themes of Boxer still resonate.
It’s hard to make sense of your life, be happy and stay resilient in the face of defeat when so much is working against you: Boxer explores what that apathy feels like, forgiving its characters for feeling that way while maintaining the self-awareness to understand that it isn’t OK to live like this forever. We can’t hope for better without asking ourselves what, within our power, we can do to make it better—and acknowledge that it takes constant vigilance to keep us there.
No one talks enough about what a perfect title Boxer is for this album: boxing is a sport where you spar with one opponent, the mirror of your own actions. A sport where half the battle is fighting yourself, and demands that you scrupulously analyze every move. A sport trading on the hope that you will always stay vigilant against failure, that no one will ever land the blow that knocks you into an elegant fall back into an unmagnificent life.
All Matt Berninger quotes are from Creative Independent.
Susannah Young is a self-employed communications strategist, writer and editor living in Chicago. Since 2009, she has also worked as a music critic. Her writing has appeared in the book Vinyl Me, Please: 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection (Abrams Image, 2017) as well as on VMP’s Magazine, Pitchfork and KCRW, among other publications.