I’ve been living in the city for almost nine months now. For a kid who grew up in the suburbs and who went to school in a university town, the biggest change has to be the noise. I’ve always been a light sleeper, the kind who would be shaken from slumber by a strong gust of wind or a lone vehicle driving down the street. Now, those sounds are continuous as cars and revelers own the streets all hours of the day and night. Sound has become the new silence, white noise soundtracking my mornings and evenings alike.
My sleeping abilities have adjusted accordingly, but I still find myself sitting by the window at times just taking in the sounds. To avoid cliché’s like “the city never sleeps,” there’s something wonderfully romantic about the fact that the city is perpetually alive with energy and motion, even a quiet town like Halifax.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between music and place, as I realize that some of my music collection just seems completely out of place in the new locale. I was putting on Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions record yesterday and couldn’t even get through it – down home rootsy folk songs just didn’t seem to play well with the concrete jungle outside.
In contrast, The National’s Boxer feels right at home in my relatively-new surroundings. In fact, the band’s story resembles my own – its members originally hail from Ohio but came together as a five-piece band in New York City. They’ve been putting out decent records for much of this decade, and garnered significant acclaim for their 2005 record Alligator, but Boxer is their most fully formed, fantastic and decidedly urban album (and no, I don’t mean ‘hip hop’).
The album’s upbeat tracks move just like the city does. First single “Mistaken for Strangers” is urban alienation walking the streets set to driving guitars and drums, while “Apartment Story” is its interior doppelganger. It’s the latter’s themes that are more indicative of Boxer,an album less interested in soundtracking a night out on the town as it is accompanying the comedown, the morning or evening after, when the city begins to feel large and empty again and desperately needs an influx of soul.
With Matt Berninger’s deep, raspy baritone floating through the speakers like a haze of cigarette smoke, the album takes us from city story to city story, of little romances that feel as small and intimate as they are huge and epic. With the exception of opener “Fake Empire” (which, as awesome as it is, feels really out of place compared to everything else on the album), most of the tracks feel spontaneous and loose, like the band is working through them for the very first time. Nothing is over-calculated or unnecessary.
And ultimately, that’s what stands out for me most about Boxer. I’m not even sure that it has better songs than Alligator – there’s nothing here as exhilerating as “Mr. November,” for certain – but it feels and sounds more natural. I don’t mind that the songs blur together a bit near the end because they all flow so perfectly from one to another. It’s the kind of album that I want to put on for a Saturday evening at home, with a whisky by the window, to soundtrack a night alone while the rest of the world revels and revolves around me.