Recordings: The National – Boxer

    Over 12 square-knuckled punches, Boxer – the latest from mellow indie rumblers the National – grazes the ear and drops a punch straight to the gut. The solid Ohio-based quintet continues in newly orchestrated progression from their quiet 2001 debut and 2003 follow-up, which certainly left their respective marks but couldn’t begin to predict the main-ring success of 2005’s rough garage-country-rock victory Alligator. Picking up right where they left off, their third full-length bottles a now-signature stifled intensity – almost as if lead singer Matt Berninger were desperately trying to yell without making a sound.

    Wrapped in that hollow voice and soaked in light piano chords, the opener’s refrain, “”We’re half awake on a fake empire,”” embodies the album’s general manner: abstract, but not falsely profound. Though they take more than one listen to absorb, the lyrics – especially chilling on “”Mistaken for Strangers”” – build just-graspable meaning, and with enough melodrama to challenge the Arcade Fire. The backdrop is filled out with horns, guitar and plenty of building percussion, a parade of which appear on “”Squalor Victoria,”” which begins as a drum-rolling attack that morphs midway into a lively blur of strings.

    At the heat-core of Boxer’s restrained conviction lies the smooth “”Green Gloves,”” where Berninger’s thick moan is softened by a guitar rhythm so chillingly bare, so raw and far off that his loneliness is almost tangible. But the king of the dramatic indie ballad himself – Sufjan Stevens, on piano for two tracks – reins us back in before we stray too far into exile. Like the most champion of fighters, the National are impassioned without relief. But pleasant orchestration and a lyrical blur mask Boxer’s heart-stopping depth enough to make it bearable – if only as a go-to for a good cry.

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