On May 22, 2007, The National released “Boxer,” the band’s fourth studio album. The record was immediately praised by fans and critics alike and further cemented The National’s legacy as one of the greatest indie rock bands of this century so far.
A little over 10 years later, on Nov. 9, 2017, the group revisited the record in Brussels, Belgium. Despite having seven albums under its belt now, The National decided to indulge fans at Forest National to a bit of nostalgia, playing the 12-track record in its entirety with “Boxer (Live in Brussels)” (2018).
For fans who couldn’t make it to that show, experiencing “Boxer” live was only possible by peering through dozens of cell phone recordings on the internet. But, with Record Store Day 2018 last Saturday, The National decided to change that, releasing the album on clear vinyl with an initial run of 4,000 copies in the United States.
Such albums can be perceived as cash grabs that take advantage of vinyl collectors, and that’s probably still true in this case. But for avid fans of The National or any indie rock fan looking for a good live album to enjoy on a Sunday afternoon, the release proves to be of both excellence in quality and bringing back memories of the original 2007 album.
It’s hard not to smile at the opening piano riff in “Fake Empire” as the crowd begins to cheer loudly in the background. It’s even harder not to continue grinning as the drums kick in and the crowd begins to clap to the beat. With the right set of speakers or headphones, it feels as though you’re right inside the venue — the vinyl’s quality is top notch.
Immediately after, “Mistaken for Strangers,” the album’s first single back in 2007, is played succinctly and without too many dramatics. The song speaks for itself — the themes of isolation and feeling those around you slip away come through beautifully on the live track, and the ability to replay the recording allows even more time to soak in lead singer Matt Berninger’s powerful lyrics.
The album ventures on with killer live instrumentation including a bouncy horn ensemble, but Berninger and crew never dare to go much outside of the album’s original compositions. Interestingly enough, though, the band opted to play the long version of “Squalor Victoria” that they normally play at their live shows rather than a carbon copy of the original song which is a mere two minutes and 59 seconds.
“Slow Show” hits the crowd hard and will likely hit your ears hard as well. Berninger’s low baritone pushes through the soft and sweet love song with conviction. Aaron Dessner deserves ample credit for his heartfelt keyboard playing at the bridge of the song. It also contains one of the few moments of actual talking on the record, where Berninger shares his experience of meeting Michelle Obama.
The B-side of the record begins with “Apartment Story,” the second single off of the original “Boxer,” kicking off a second half that has plenty of gems to sift through. “Start a War” and “Guest Room” were executed to near perfection, though both songs perhaps laid a bit too much of a somber tone in the room, with Berninger commenting, “This is a sad record,” at the end of the latter track.
He makes a fair point. Despite the nostalgic feeling revisiting the album emits, “Boxer” is all about growing up and the hardships of love and friendship that come with becoming an adult. For a band of guys in their 40s, perhaps it’s a hard album to revisit.
It certainly isn’t the most ‘fun’ record to put into a live album, but as far as 10-year anniversaries go, it’s hard to imagine a better piece of The National’s discography to look back on. The album feels nostalgic because of the coming-of-age themes, the sad memories we tie to certain songs and the knowledge we have now of those experiences from 10 years ago. Some albums are worth revisiting — “Boxer” is one of those albums.
The record wraps up with “Gospel,” a proper ending to the bittersweet experience that is this live album. The band says goodbye, jokingly reminding the crowd that what they just heard was “Boxer,” in case they didn’t know.
With a really solid audio recording, impressive vocal and instrumental performances and a perfect nostalgic record to boot, “Boxer (Live in Brussels)” is certainly a record worth seeking out. For fans of The National, it’s a sad but sweet trip back to one of the band’s most heartbreaking yet loved records, and for anyone else, it’s a clean-cut live record with 12 gorgeous tracks to dive into.
The only bad aspect of the record is that you’ll wish you had been in Brussels last November to experience the nostalgia with the crowd. Luckily, this is the next best thing.