The Healing Powers of The National’s Boxer

Cover image of The National's Boxer, depicting the band playing a concert at a wedding in black and white

I have suffered from anxiety and depression for years, although I didn’t always realize it. When I was in high school, through my college years, during moments of high anxiety, I’d describe myself as feeling “sick” or just “weird.”

It wasn’t until things became out of control, where my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest for a full two weeks without reprieve, that I went to see a doctor about this feeling. I learned that I was dealing with anxiety; there was nothing physically wrong with me, even though I was certain something was in fact very wrong.

This was sometime in 2008. A few years later, another intense bout of anxiety put me in the emergency room—twice. Even though I knew it was likely all anxiety, I was convinced something was wrong with my heart. From that point forward I began going to therapy, which has helped keep things “under control” for me, although I still deal with rough periods of anxiety to this day.

It was around that first panic attack in 2008 when I was introduced to The National’s Boxer. Clearly, I was in a rough patch of my life.

Even though I was coming to terms with my anxiety at that time, I did not realize that I was also depressed. I can look back now and see that.

I was drawn to “sad” music. Radiohead. The Antlers. Arcade Fire. They were bands that could bring out all sorts of sad emotions within myself. Then I found Boxer, and it changed everything.

I would listen to Boxer every day, multiple times per day. At work, I’d pop in my headphones and put the opening track “Fake Empire” on repeat for hours.

The National’s music made my insides ache. But it was also healing me. It was strange: I would feel sad…but then also better.

Some studies have found that people who are sad tend to prefer sad music, perhaps for calming effects, and that sad music can provide feelings of comfort by evoking memories.

This would make a lot of sense for me, regarding listening to The National’s Boxer. Every song is like a story, told through the eyes of lead singer Matt Berninger. It’s like listening to memories. Berninger’s use of repetition in his lyrics (something used across many of the band’s albums) helps put an emphasis on the imagery and construct these memories.

The songs of Boxer paint a picture, made up of these different stories that I envision sprouting from the images of the album’s cover. Dark, but warm and maybe a little old-fashioned.

Boxer is not simply special because of Berninger’s lyrics and storytelling abilities—the album’s music is fantastic as well. You may think a “sad” album would be slow, but that’s not the case here.

The backbone of the album is the unbelievable drumming of Bryan Devendorf, which provides this driving punch in a way that isn’t flashy but is so full of life. Devendorf’s brother, Scott, plays bass. Another set of brothers, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, play guitar and provide magical song arrangements.

The music of Boxer brings just as much emotion as Berninger’s somber, deep-voiced lyrics.

The Songs

The first eight songs of Boxer are unmatched. “Fake Empire” is one of my favorite opening tracks on any album. It’s so representative of the entire album for me, really. It opens with a sweet piano part and Berninger singing about this perfect fantasy world, in which he is strolling along without a care in the world.

But maybe things aren’t as perfect as they seem.

“Turn the light out, say goodnight

No thinking for a little while.

Let’s not try to figure out everything at once.

It’s hard to keep track of you falling through the sky.

We’re half awake in a fake empire.”

These lines get me every time. I interpret this as saying there’s a bit of sadness behind everything, and we can pretend that it’s not there—but that doesn’t mean it disappears.

The music of the song has this slow build, riding on the shoulders of Bryan Devendorf, until it finally explodes into a chaotic horn section that brings the feelings to the highest level before tapering off and leading brilliantly into the next track.

“Mistaken for Strangers” has some of my favorite lyrics from The National.

“You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends

When you pass them at night

Under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights

Arm in arm in arm and eyes and eyes, glazing under.”

And then later:

“So you swear you just saw a feathery woman

Carry a blindfolded man through the trees.”

The imagery of this song is unbeatable. When I listen to “Mistaken for Strangers,” I genuinely feel like I’m walking down a lonely but lit-up city street, forgotten by the people I care about.

Behind the lyrical poetry, the Dessner brothers create this metallic guitar effect, and of course the drumming is out of this world.

“Squalor Victoria” is also anchored with an epic drum portion, marching along and giving the song a sense of something terrible that’s approaching. Being an editor for my day job, I’ve always put myself in the shoes of the song’s narrator for the opening line: “Underline everything, I’m a professional” and say that to myself while I worked.

Over the years I’ve gained even more appreciation for this song after seeing it live, as The National really cranks it up at the end, jamming out while Berninger screams “Squalor Victoria” at the top of his lungs.

“Slow Show” was always a relatable tune for me, being about an insecure guy who is worried he’ll inevitably screw everything up. (This is me in pretty much every aspect of life.) But in this case, the person in the song is worried about ruining a relationship. However, it ends with the very sweet line of “You know I’ve dreamed about you, for 29 years before I saw you… I’ve missed you for 29 years.”

There are two lyrical moments in Boxer that have always stood out to me as just absolutely perfect. The first moment occurs in the song “Apartment Story,” when Berninger sings:

“Tired and wired, we ruin too easy.

Sleep in our clothes and wait for winter to leave.

And I’ll be with you, behind the couch

When they come on a different day, just like this one.”

I don’t know what it is about this imagery or use of words, but it has always ramped up the feels for me. It’s funny listening to this song at the present moment, as it advocates staying inside until somebody finds us and “doing whatever the TV tells us.” Pretty much sums up life right now, doesn’t it? I also will always have a soft spot for this song because it’s one of the few National songs that my wife will openly admit liking.

“Start a War” is one of the saddest songs on Boxer. It’s about someone realizing a relationship is on its last legs. The narrator doesn’t want it to end, but knows that’s unlikely.

“We expected something, something better than before

We expected something more.

You were always weird but I never had to hold you

By the edges, like I do now…

Walk away now and you’re gonna start a war.”

Similar to “Fake Empire,” this song has a sense of building that culminates in a wide range of emotion. A truly beautiful, sad song.

The second lyrical moment of Boxer that always gets me occurs on the album’s penultimate track, “Ada.”

“Stand inside an empty tuxedo with grapes in my mouth

Waiting for Ada.

Ada, hold onto yourself by the sleeves

I think everything counts a little more than we think.”

The description of this scene is just so vivid for me, with the narrator waiting for his friend who likely has anxiety, trying to give her advice. This song is another to use horns to build the drama toward a majestic conclusion (and it also features Sufjan Stevens on piano).

Some 12 years after I discovered The National’s Boxer, I still have a very special relationship with this album. It helped me through some difficult times in my life, in which I struggled with my mental health. This collection of songs that tells stories as if they were passing memories has created real memories for me. I now have these memories of listening to this album, feeling sad but also comforted, as I would sing along with the lyrics or try to replicate a drumbeat on my car’s steering wheel.

It’s not hyperbole to say that The National’s Boxer changed my life. It changed the way I experience music. It taught me to notice things in music that I had never noticed before. And to this day, it’s still a special occasion whenever I pop it on.

I’m so very grateful to have found this album.

Written by Bryan O'Donnell

Bryan O'Donnell is a Writer and TV Editor for 25YL. In addition to TV and Twin Peaks, he loves music, baseball, reading, and playing video games. He lives in Chicago.

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