Does A Live Performance Elevate The National’s "Boxer?”

The National’s Boxer remains a great album eleven years after its release. With its basic, slightly Joy Division-esque stadium-filling musical arrangements and lyrical themes, two of which are relationships and aging, many of the songs remain fresh-sounding.

Boxer brought the band commercial success (as far as indie releases go) along with critical acclaim that’s followed the band through a decade’s worth of releases. Within a few years Boxer will likely be considered an indie rock classic, if it hasn’t already achieved that status.

However, do we really need to hear a live performance of the entire album?

Recorded November 9, 2017 in Forest, Belgium (making the Brussels title somewhat misleading), it’s immediately apparent that the band wasn’t excited about having to perform “Fake Empire” for the 573rd time. Complete with unnecessary guitar fills, the song stumbles for three minutes, barely moving anywhere.

The National has never been a notable live band, and their live recordings are of even less note. Having attended one of their concerts (Forest Hills Stadium, Queens, NY), I can attest that the audience connected to the music in a very special way. (Guitarist Aaron Dessner claims the Forest Hills show was one of the Brooklyn-based band’s best). Highlights for me were cuts from its latest and best album Sleep Well Beast, behind which were monochrome backdrop visuals taken from the album’s cover art, and the show-ending crowd singalong of High Violet closer “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.”

It was a fantastic show (except for my mom blowing out my left ear by trying to get the attention of former University of Cincinnati graphic design classmates, singer Matt Berninger and bassist Scott Devendorf.)

However, said live connection has failed to translate to the long stream of 1’s and 0’s of which this recording is made. While concert albums and/or films by more charismatic live artists such as David Bowie (A Reality Tour) and the White Stripes (Under Great White Northern Lights) serve to document entertaining shows, The National’s music and performances aren't in that vein.

Since The National’s shows rely on the emotional connection to the audience through the lyrics as opposed to shared energy, their concerts simply don't work well as live albums. A good live album should take you to the concert; this doesn't do that.

The music is by no means bad, but this release (limited to 4,000 copies worldwide) feels less like an attempt to provide a meaningful musical experience and more like a way to pick hipster pockets as they fear a steep price hike on this RSD vinyl pressing. (As of the time of writing, it has happened; the cheapest price on Discogs for this is over $80! Please don't pay these prices. If you want this album, instead grab the far less costly CD.)

If this is the best unreleased material the band could muster for the (supposed) celebration of record stores worldwide, then it appears their vaults hold nothing special.

From the perspective of someone not in attendance at this particular show, the included banter ranges from redundant to grating: Do I really want to hear singer Matt Berninger tell a story about Michelle Obama’s “bear hugs?” Probably not, unless I’m at the concert. While the faux low IQ type humor displayed by one of the band members (not sure who) may have been funny once for those in attendance, hearing it repeatedly when you spin the record quickly becomes tiring.

The sound of the individual instruments on Boxer (Live In Brussels) differs only slightly from the studio record. I actually prefer the live album’s grittier rhythm guitar tone, but the live “Fake Empire”’s drums miss the studio album version’s attack and sound even more compressed.

While many of The National’s releases have been heavily squashed, this one is nonsensically so. Softer parts of songs sound “normal” (meaning not good, not bad), but louder parts sound completely slammed with no space for any sound to breathe.

The LP was cut by Ryan K Smith at Sterling Sound, but sadly he can’t save this album from the source material’s crappy sound. Anyone thinking this sounds good because it’s on vinyl and so must sound better, is being naïve. At least the album was pressed flat on a 150(-ish) gram slab of clear vinyl by Optimal Media GmbH.

More frustrating than the sound is the jacket’s holographic cover. Even the lightest, most careful handling results in fingerprints nearly impossible to wipe off. A design similar to the Third Man Vault edition of Jack White’s Boarding House Reach would have been better, as it would still have the same overall feel, but would be less prone to this cover’s fingerprin retention. Tip-on construction would also have been preferred. However, despite these complaints this is nowhere near the worst or most infuriating $24.99 record I’ve purchased.

Fsonicsmith's picture

to work a side-job at Stereophile? I am going to guess he and his mom want to focus on his studies but it would sure be nice. An occasional review here is good enough. In my late 50's, I still gravitate towards current era music rather than Goldie-oldies (my only copy of DSoTM is the Flaming Lips version) but The National is a hard band to get into for me and I have most of his stuff on vinyl. I would classify the genre as "late night headphone moody stuff"

Michael Fremer's picture
For now he's got a "side-job" here and I'm keeping him! He has a product review coming next.
MalachiLui's picture

A "side job" at Stereophile would stress me out way too much! I already have enough review responsibilities here so I'm here to stay!