More often than not, records with real staying power don't provide instant gratification. That's sad, since the winds of change—even in the historically more thoughtful indie world—are blowing toward surface-level pop. Sure, Peter Bjorn And John make delicious musical candy, but unlimited eartime spent on sugar fixes could squeeze out time spent with bands like The National, whose moody, smart, often subliminally breathtaking songs require and reward patient attention. The Brooklyn band's new Boxer is even more measured and seemingly mellow than 2005's incredible Alligator, but bubbling under the dark, glassy surface are smart, engaging songs that will stay imprinted on brains when others' weightless melodies are relegated to memory's attic.
Boxer is an overcast collection, redolent of smoky barrooms and tired arguments—hardly the perfect way to start a sunny summer. But Matt Berninger—and here's where paying attention helps—isn't some sad-sack lyricist looking to wallow in beautifully murky musical waters that recall Dirty Three, Tindersticks, and Leonard Cohen. He's funny, witty, and weird, able to find that rare intersection of nervous tension and tickled release and deliver it all in a rich, convincing baritone.
Unlike Alligator, Boxer confidently refuses to drop in controlled-detonation rockers like "Mr. November" and "Abel." The band—Berninger and two pairs of brothers, the Dessners and the Devendorfs—instead erect and maintain a world of their own, in which characters wander half-drunk through darkened cities (on the incredible opener "Fake Empire"), fall into the "unmagnificent lives of adults" (the charging "Mistaken For Strangers"), and stay inside to fret ("Gospel"). To those with time for only a passing glance, it could conceivably come across as dull, but a close look at monumental songs like "Start A War" and the scathingly sad, funny "Slow Show" will reveal bleak, black diamonds—precious, glimmering, and lasting.