(editor’s note: most of this blog post has been written months ago right after the album came out)
There are so many different things that can make me like a song or an album. Rarely have so much of them been combined in a single album though. The National’s Alligator was a real grower for me, after seeing a video for “Abel” on Spanish TV a few years back.
It gave me very high expectations of their new album, Boxer. Fake Empire, the opening song, was advanced on download from their website. One track that already combined so much greatness on its own, an excellent preview of the whole album.
In short, here is a list of things that can make me love a song.
- marching drums, suggesting an army off to war. Think the ending of “Cloudbusting” by “Kate Bush”. Guilty as charged: “Fake Empire” on The National’s Boxer.
- Painfully succint lyrics. “You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends.” (Mistaken for Strangers)
- waltzes. Rock music does not have enough waltzes. 4/4 can be good, but everyone does it. Guilty as charged: “Fake Empire” on The National’s Boxer.
- Lyrics that apply to me. “Walk away now and you’re going to start a war.” (Start a War) Anyone who’s ever been with me for longer than two weeks knows what happens when they walk out on a discussion with me. I’m sorry for having been such a dick in those situations, you know who you are…
- Guitars that sound like someone is banging a wrench against the radiators somewhere in the building. Think dissonant Sonic Youth style guitars, or Swallow on Placebo’s first (excellent but much-maligned) album. Available in spades on intros for Mistaken for Strangers and Brainy
- Horns. More bands should use horns for color. See John the Baptist by Afghan Whigs. On Boxer, see Ada and Fake Empire
- Fever dream songs. Think The Scene’s “Dromenlied” if you’re Dutch/Flemish. On Boxer: Squalor Victoria.
- Drums that hop, skip, stumble and switch. Pulling the rest of the song under the lake’s surface and back up for air. Brainy and Slow Show
- Making up words. Green Gloves uses “cinderella” as a verb, to great effect
- shakers, maracas, whatever they’re called. Used perfectly, on Slow Show.
- Getting good artists to help out on songs, and having them add colour and texture without having them run away with the songs. Sufjan Stevens is on this record (who I have tried very hard to like up to now, but failed to) on Ada and Racing Like a Pro
- Lyrics about relationships gone awry – especially if they’re written cleverly. Pretty much the whole album
- Dark songs that blossom open in the middle, leaving the sun to peek through the clouds. See Ada
- Referencing your own songs. The Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen had it all over (compare If I Were Going to Debonair). On this album, Slow Show’s ending lyric references one of their earlier songs from the first album.
- Using seldom used cool words; “ruffians” on Guest Room and Racing Like a Pro for example. (Bonus points for making this an intertextual reference through using this word between two subsequent songs)
I’m pretty certain this album is going to stay wedged as the number one for 2007 for me. Here’s a rundown of the tracks:
- Fake Empire
- Turn the light out say goodnight
no thinking for a little while
lets not try to figure out everything at once
The song starts off with two pianos facing off in the gentlest Mexican standoff. For the longest time I felt something was off on this song, and I couldn’t figure out what it was; like an amazing statue with a chip out, like a girl you love for a fault you haven’t noticed yet. One day it hit me, listening to it for the hundredthsomething time. The first piano is doing a waltz, the second one a standard 4/4. The whole song builds on this juxtaposition of two basic rhythms, effectively making it a 12/12 song, or a song where two musical figures play infinite catchup. It’s probably been done before, but I had never heard or noticed anyone doing this. Amazing how they pull it off, and even after having figured it out the song has lost none of its strength. As if they knew they had a wedding opener song on their hands, and wanted to do everything they could to make sure that no one would actually be able to figure out how to dance to it.
In any case, after the pianos start off, the voice kicks in, with lyrics that don’t directly make sense, yet still manage to convey a feeling that you don’t know the name for. After that first chorus, the drums knock on the door, trickle through slowly, and the piano flourishes gently, until after a short time it switches to the marching army beat. (One of the amazing strengths of this album is the drum work overall, I’ve never before actually noticed a drummer being such a great contribution to a record)
The song progresses, backing vocals drop in, and after the second verse the guitars barge in, spilling chords that make gentle waves running out across the water, where they crash head-on into the horn section rippling over the song.
An amazing entry into the record.
Tiptoe through our shiny city with our diamond slippers on
Do our gay ballet on ice
bluebirds on our shoulders
- Mistaken for Strangers
well you wouldn’t want an angel watching over you – surprise, surprise, they wouldn’t want to watch
The radiator banging all through the song gives it a perfect atmosphere for its theme of loss and loneliness. The thing is, the song doesn’t complain,it merely observes, and it doesn’t even sound like a bad place to be.
you get mistaken for strangers by your own friends
You know I keep your fingerprints in a pink folder in the middle of my table
This is the song where the drummer’s skills are the most notable. In the intro section, he plays three excellent fills, and mixes them up randomly, as if he’s still trying to decide on the spot which of them to use in the rest of the song. Then when the singing kicks in he settles on combining two of them, somehow leaving you with the knowledge that he could have taken any of them to underpin the song. It’s as if they’re practicing in their basement and you get to watch, and they magically get it right first try.
you might need me more than you think you will
- Squalor Victoria
You know that feeling, when your body tingles at the slightest touch, your head feels light, and simply yawning gives you tickles all over because your body is hyper-sensitive, and you can’t think straight, and you know tomorrow you’ll come down with a fever. That’s what this song sounds like, a fever dream.
Underline everything, I’m a professional in my beloved white shirt
(I misheard the lyrics the first time, I heard “I’m no professional I’m not a lover by trade”. Too bad I was wrong.)
- Green Gloves
Get inside their clothes
with my green gloves
watch their videos, in their chairs.
Get inside their beds
with my green gloves
Get inside their heads, love their loves.
I still can’t figure out if this lovely song is giving me the creeps or not. I still don’t know if it’s a peek inside the mind of a psycho stalker, or just a sweet dirge lamenting losing touch with your old friends. The guitar gets tickled with some kind of Boys Don’t Cry chords in reverse.
- Slow Show
I want to hurry home to you and put on a slow dumb show for you and crack you up
The song sounds like it’s about a guy coming home from work after messing up royally and getting fired, holding on to the only good thing he has going for him in his life, his first love since forever, which he has been pining for for years. Or maybe he cheated on his girl, and wants to make up and start over ? Watch those drums go, how the counterbeat breaks up the space between verse and chorus, before going full tilt on the chorus. Or watch those drums roll out on the coda, with the soft dry ticks of the sticks on the drum’s edge in there somewhere.
I’m still not sure if he’s singing “and frack you up” or “crack you up”. Am I hearing a closet Battlestar Galactica reference, or just imagining one ?
You know I dreamed about you for twenty-nine years before I saw you
- Apartment Song
Stay inside til somebody finds us, do whatever the TV tells us
Probably the most cheerful song on the record. Perfect lyrics. Perfect drumming. Perfect guitars. It doesn’t get much better than this. It makes you want to lock yourself up with your favourite girl, bar the door, disconnect the phone, and do exactly what the song tells you to. It gets that simple idea completely right all throughout the song.
Hold ourselves together with our arms around the stereo for hours, la la la la
While it sings to itself or whatever it does
when it sings to itself of its long lost loves
I’m getting tied, I’m forgetting why
- Start a War
You were always weird but I’ve never had to hold you by the edges like I do now
A sweet subdued sleepy song, describing the feeling when someone walks out on you, hurting your pride and making sure you get into a cold shoulder war where neither one makes the first move to mend things again.
- Guest Room
Just tie your woman to your wrist, give her room to tie the other
Is love selfless or obsessive or both ? Is there even a difference ? How sweet the ooh’s on the bridge, they help to stop wondering about which end of the scale you’re on.
They’ll find us here here here in the guest room
where we throw money at each other and cry, oh my
- Racing like a Pro
Fifteen blue shirts and womanly hands
you’re shooting up the ladder
Feels like lying in your bed at night, unable to sleep because your mind keeps treading on, and you think about all the things you wished you’d done but haven’t, and how you’re getting old, too old to do anything about everything you’ve never done. Is shooting up the ladder really where you want to be right now ?
Ada hold onto yourself by the sleeves
I think everything counts a little more than we think
Horns and piano are excellent on this song. You can tell there’s something really wrong with Ada, but she looks so normal. The verses again are little drops of sunlight falling into the troubled lake that is Ada, lifting the song up to some warm and almost safe place. If only.
Ada I can hear the sound of your laugh through the walls
Stay near your television set it up outside
Ending on a quiet note, tired, hoping to come over and lay its head down in your lap.
Let me come over I can waste your time I’m bored
For some reason I don’t know how to do justice to the guitar work. It’s simply excellent all over the album. In a lot of songs, one brother gently tickles the sweetest melody out of the guitar (have I mentioned this band features two sets of brothers ?) while the other brother curls his guitar riffs up to the drummer. It’s hard to explain, but it works so well. This band has rhythm nailed down and it all fits like a glove. The phrasing of the lyrics, how they wiggle between the instruments, how the drummer hacks up the sound space, it all works out perfectly.
The album simply does not have a bad song for me. I can count the number of albums that I have like that on two hands. It seldom gets any better than this. It’s the kind of album I give to people, bought new for them, just because it is that good. The lyrics and themes have a dark undercurrent, describing screwed-up relationships and love gone wrong, in a very similar vein to my other favourite band, Afghan Whigs. You can’t help but feel attracted to these dark tales of despair and despondency, infused with a brutal honesty that other bands have to work at to project.
If you breathe music, give this album a try, and let it grow on you.