Since 1999, this Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati quintet has been trying to fuse poetic lyrics, cinematic pull, and nervy, restless rock in a singular way. And on their fourth album, they finally fulfill those ambitions, adding brass, piano, and backup singers to unveil high drama of the blunt, unclichéd sort unheard since the Afghan Whigs’ ’90s heyday.
Yet the National don’t just reconvene Greg Dulli’s sweaty seminars on sex and soul. Boxer opens with Matt Berninger’s sweeping baritone, recounting life in a privacy-invading “Fake Empire,” where the oblivious and decadent “tiptoe through our shiny city with our diamond slippers on, do our gay ballet on ice, bluebirds on our shoulders.” The lyrics’ immediacy recalls the band’s 2004 track “Wasp Nest,” a stunning class commentary chronicling an obsession with a U.S. aristocrat in a decades-old cocktail dress. But here the rhythms accelerate as the album unfolds, and the horns grow taut, puncturing, even slightly jazz-crazed.
“Brainy,” about stalking someone with a “fancy, fancy mind,” and “Slow Show,” about missing someone you’ve never met, become darting, rhythmic workouts. And “Guest Room,” with its troubled couple retiring into suffocation, chamber-pops onto even grander, more mysterious terrain. “Sometimes you go la-di-da-di-da-di-da-da/ Till your eyes roll back into your head,” Berninger explains in the operatic “Racing Like a Pro.” And that’s the anguished world of denial that the National report on. Horrible or magnificent, it’s all theirs.