The National is a band of aesthetic pleasures—of Art Deco buildings run through a sharpening filter, of an initial richness hiding an abundance of wit. Speaking of their music in terms of the artists whose songs they've covered, or of the sonorous voices to which Matt Berninger's own throat has been compared, doesn't ultimately get to the heart of things. The band—Berninger, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and Bryan and Scott Devendorf—makes steady, tightly controlled rock music. Listen for the conflicts between Berninger's desperate characters and wry humor, the group's rhythmic pulses and fleeting moments of catharsis. Like a Robert Longo image behind a Rhys Chatham ensemble, or David Fincher's opening to Panic Room, where iconic buildings are made unfamiliar.
Boxer, released earlier this year, is the National's fourth album. Looking at titles like "Start a War" and "Fake Empire," you could be forgiven for taking this as more of a political work than 2005's Alligator. "I can't deny that the lyrics were written during a war," Berninger says, but argues convincingly that the same could be said for Alligator. Pointing specifically to "Fake Empire," he dubs it "a critique of my own apathy," amid a constant state of war and political unrest.
Going to the beginnings of the National's discography reveals a remarkable consistency of sound from their first album until today. ("It's hard to disguise my voice," Berninger says, "as much as I try".) But how does the band's current home of New York relate to Cincinnati, the city from which all five members hail? "I don't quite feel like a New Yorker," Berninger states, but admits, "New York comes into the songs more than Cincinnati."
The National is a rock band who can shift gears in a moment and make chamber music, a group whose focus is nearly preternatural. "My perspective comes from this romantic obsession with [New York City]; nothing quite seems real," says Berninger. A comment that stands as the best explanation of the music the National makes: the stylization, the shifts in tone, and their almost sanctified mixture of precision and delirium.