As an old man nearing 40, I’ve really embraced the surliness of my twilight years. I’m as Gen-X as I can be, still holding onto much of the identity I shaped for myself in those few fleeting years in my early twenties when I thought I was “cool”. Very much a child of the nineties - raised on the angst of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and Nirvana, but inspired by the future-looking progressivism of Radiohead and The Flaming Lips and The Magnetic Fields - I solidified “who I am” in that short period of time before and after the start of the new millennium. But as time and age and the fate of the world inevitably forced me onward, I’ve struggled to be able to consistently define or express exactly who I am anymore. Music has always been one of the most important ways I can make sense of myself.
As far as “new music” goes, there isn’t much that I identify with strongly. I’m very much still rooted in those now classic-rock era bands of my past. But the one notable exception to that - the band that consistently creates new music that both reminds me of my past and connects me with my present - is The National. While much of their music could be described as slow or droning or even bleak to the casual listener, for me it’s the exact sort of contemplative, inward-looking-but-outwardly-declarative music that inspired me in my adolescence and early adulthood. The National seems to conjure melody from absolutely nothing at all, lacing and stitching together impressionistic lyrics that in one listen convey nothing specific but through a hundred repeated playbacks tell a deep, rich, personal and devastating story about the challenges of being alive in a personal world we’re not sure we meant to create.
That’s a long build-up to get to the album I wanted to write about. When I first heard “Boxer”, it wrecked me. I didn’t know I still had the capacity within me to connect with music to that depth. I listened to it in my thirties with the same obsession that I used to listen to those old Pearl Jam or Radiohead records with back when I was a teenager. I poured over every lyric, every note, every subtle pang or squelching ring. It was, for me then and still for me now, an absolutely perfect album. It immediately became one of those ‘soundtrack of my life’ albums that I knew I’d love forever. “Fake Empire” bemoaned my disaffection with my surroundings; “Squalor Victoria” was my dissolution with my job and career; “Green Gloves” was an ode to all the college friends I didn’t know anymore; “Slow Show” was every relationship I ruined; “Apartment Story” recalled every party I ever threw; “Ada” was every relationship I didn’t ruin; and the final track “Gospel”, fittingly, was very much the who I am, or was, right then, every time I heard it. Every song on that album felt like it was written for me and only me, which, in my simple estimation, is the highest praise anyone can hang on a piece of art. And Boxer, so very much, is a work of musical art.
Around the time Boxer was released, a lot was changing in my life. I was finally giving up on some of the behaviors and mindsets of my “college personality” and figuring out, slowly, how to be an adult - or more specifically - a man. And by that I mean to say nothing of masculinity or gender, but merely of loving and living in a way that protects me without isolating me and sets me up to face the world without fear or worry but also with a healthy acknowledgement of my own impact on those around me. Boxer is… just that. “Boxer”, as the title of the album, is the perfect use of a single word. There’s nothing pugilistic about the music or personality of The National, but as a metaphor for growing up, the concept of sparring with everyone and everything around you, for me, was the best definition I could have conceived of. That was me… not a fighter, not a warrior, but not a victim either. Just a guy, on his feet, with his hands up and heart beating, hoping to make it through round after round until I could finally sit in my corner and relax for a bit before the next match. I literally bought extra vinyl copies to give out to friends and family. It was like, “All my life I’ve struggled to tell you who I am and how I feel and it’s getting harder and harder the older I get… but just listen to this... and then you’ll understand.”
The songs of Boxer are both tiring and motivating. They’re modern, but timeless. And they have this weird penetrating effect that drives deeper into you each time you listen. Naturally, I listened to it again as I wrote this. And nothing has changed for me in the more than a decade since I first heard Boxer. It’s still written for me, and just me, and tells the story of who and how and where I am better than anything else could: look back, look forward, success or failure, love or sadness, punch after punch, song after song, year after year, just keep your hands up and feet moving.
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