We’re half awake in our fake empire.
Push through a revolving door and break the plane of a cold that hangs solid in the air and amplifies all the small sounds, making the busy sidewalk feel almost empty. The lights from the taller buildings — 30 or 40 or more stories up — create a soft electric glow, a warm blanket of false twilight that hovers and holds the city close.
Maybe you’re headed home to dinner and bed. Perhaps you’re off to the gym. If it’s Thursday, you might be bound for a bar or dinner to meet co-workers or make connections. No matter where you’re going, you’re headed to whatever semblance of home you’ve built sooner rather than later, because tomorrow’s Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday or Friday. Another day of work.
This is all you have and this is all you have looked forward to. This is life as one in however many million, this is growing up and growing older in New York City.
The National is the soundtrack.
Falling out of touch with all my friends (are) somewhere getting wasted. ‘Hope they’re staying glued together — I have arms for them. Take another sip of them, it floats around and takes me over like a little drop of ink in a glass of water.
The National released “Boxer” in 2007. The band’s fourth full-length wasn’t a chart-topper or a staple of radio playlists of any kind. Instead, it garnered glowing reviews from tastemakers like Pitchfork Media, Paste and Stylus Magazine. The album’s commercial success was a long, slow burn not unlike one of the band’s weaving, understated songs.
Musically, “Boxer” is a thing of beauty. The band takes the buzzing, ever-present hum of mid-90s indie guitars and intersperses clean electric guitar tones that you might expect to hear on a Pinback album. The rhythm section is always churning, moving and steaming ahead under the wash of guitars, building unique patterns that propel the songs forward at a quiet gallop. Every once in a while, a non sequitur of instrumentation pops up in a fashion more recently brought toward the mainstream by Bon Iver: horns, organ, a subtle synthesizer or piano.
It isn’t only the guitars, drums and bass that make “Boxer” mesh so perfectly with the wintry grey wash of 20- or 30-something everyday-dom, but it does lend the entire record a distinct and cohesive sense of time and place. The music never opens up into clear blue skies like Death Cab For Cutie’s indie-pop tunes. It doesn’t dwell in a hollow subterranean echo chamber like James Blake’s sparse electronics.
“Boxer” always sits somewhere between an early winter sunset and the early morning hours, mirroring Manhattan’s constant motion and rearrangement.
You’re pink, you’re young, you’re middle class, they say it doesn’t matter. With 15 blue shirts and womanly hands, you’re shooting up the ladder. Your mind is racing like a pro now (my God, it doesn’t mean a lot to you). One time you were a glowing young ruffian (my God, it was a million years ago).
The National is not your ordinary drop-out-of-high-school/college-and-hit-the-road rock band. In a 2007 feature, Paste called the band “the white-collar E Street Band.” The National is comprised of guys from Ohio who moved to New York to pursue jobs in graphic design and advertising. As writing, playing and selling their music grew increasingly lucrative, the members of the band were able to ditch their day jobs and focus solely on writing and touring.
Matt Berninger’s lyrics aren’t your typically hip Brooklyn fare. You won’t find irony for irony’s sake or outright humor laced into his words. Berninger worked a day job into his mid-30s. He is in a committed relationship. He is the college-educated, city-dwelling everyman. The band’s recording studio sits not in a Williamsburg artists’ loft or a Lower East Side tenement, but in a detached garage in the relatively sedate Ditmas Park section of Brooklyn, where green grass yards, stunning Victorian architecture and tree-lined streets dominate the landscape. This is a place for wine and porch swings and growing older, not a place for Pabst and art collectives and unfettered adolescence.
You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends when you pass in the night under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights, arm-in-arm-in-arm and eyes-and-eyes glazing over. You wouldn’t want an angel watching over, and — surprise, surprise — they wouldn’t want to watch another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults.
You came because you were the best at something. Or at least one of the best at something. Writing, design, advertising, public relations, accounting. You came because your ambitions were too outsized for wherever they were confined.
You make good money. More than you did one year ago. Much more than you did two years ago. You feel the same. Maybe you are just you, wherever you are. You realize you are paying an exorbitant amount of money to live with the same you as you have always lived with.
Winter makes the days shorter, but your hours stay the same. You don’t see sunlight from your space near the center of your carpeted, cubed 1970s office. On your walk home, you peer into windows on the bottom levels of the brownstones that line the streets of your neighborhood. Friends and families laugh, surrounded by better food, better furniture and better times than you could ever imagine having. This reminds you of the friends and better times you used to have.
Would they recognize you now?
The wind gets cold and the snow falls. You’re either cooped up in your too-small apartment or walking the city, wishing you could rewind to a time when Midtown’s holiday lights might have meant something.
This is “Boxer.”
Tired and wired, we ruin too easy. Sleep in our clothes and we wait for winter to leave. Hold ourselves together with our arms around the stereo for hours while it sings to itself or whatever it does, when it sings to itself of its long-lost loves, I’m getting tired. I’m forgetting why … We’ll stay inside ’til somebody finds us, do whatever the TV tells us, stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz.
So much of the music we listen to is about Living. Rappers wax poetic about their riches; Pop stars sing about having the greatest night of dancing ever, every night; Rock’s focus on the morose has narrowed to include only the most traumatic of emotional situations.
“Boxer” is an album about life: All the time we spend drifting mundanely from day-to-day without ever peaking or bottoming out. Life doesn’t usually include fast cars, garish jewelry, making love in clubs or outright misery. Life is about getting by. Life is wondering what comes next. Life is searching for validation and long-term love. Life is about boring jobs, weekend coffee walks and dinner in front of the TV.
The life “Boxer” illustrates is the unsettling settling and the realization that maybe this is all there is.