I Have Your Dreams and Your Teeth Marks

Boxer and Alligator by The National

I first came across Matt Berninger's paradoxically deadpan yet stunningly emotional vocals in 2007, listening to Boxer and then Alligator. In a lot of ways, I'm only familiar with these two albums as a continuation of each other, which is why I decided to review both together. There is something incredibly magnetizing about these albums, in the way they feel like the product of lonely nights walking through empty city streets. Where Alligator can be considered a night isolated from the world, Boxer is in many ways like a continuation, in which the personal isolation is thrown off in favor of observing those around them (though not necessarily interacting with them). 

Both albums have been described as "growers", in that the strange turns of phrases, incredibly ambiguous lyrics and the interesting way these songs navigate around hooks can take a while to be enjoyable. On both albums, the songs are incredibly dense; the tight, precise drums are the centerpiece of each song, building tension and often magnifying the emotional distress deceptively masked by violins, guitars and horns. But the songs' density draws its source from their nearly inscrutable lyrics, purposefully murky songs whose meanings change each time you hear them.

Alligator begins with "Secret Meeting", an incredibly ambiguous song about ambiguity, the imagery (of spies, sunglasses and basements) preoccupied with hiding, though nothing is illuminated other than the secret meeting "went the dull and wicked ordinary way". "Lit Up" is the first song that most obviously points at the feeling of big city isolation, singing "So lit up, lit up, lit up alright/I try to untie Manhattan", though  Berninger also tries to "untie from your bad blood". "All the Wine" is the most introspective, with Berninger singing "I'm put together beautifully", calling himself a festival, a birthday candle in a circle of black girls, a perfect piece of ass, and finally pronouncing "All the wine is all for me". Again there is the imagery of an empty city, singing "Through the black city, night lights are on in the corners/And everyone's sleeping upstairs/All safe and sound".

Boxer begins with "Fake Empire", picking up on the imagery of being isolated from the city surroundings, singing "Tiptoe through our shiny city", though later calling the shiny city a fake empire. But the main difference between Boxer and Alligator is immediately evident in its opening track; whereas Berninger attempts to untie his city and untie himself from others, Boxer opens with a plural, repeatedly using "we", "us", and "our". In many ways, Berninger has untied his city; songs like "Squalor Victoria", "Racing Like a Pro", "Ada" and "Mistaken for Strangers" seem to reflect his opinions on society, calling attention to the corporate ladder, white-collar lifestyles, upward mobility and the "uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults". Tracks like "Green Gloves" and "Brainy" offer an illuminating view of how he untied the city; namely by observing those around him in a detached manner ("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").

Of course, there is the subject of love songs. For Alligator, these love songs mostly seem terribly defeated. In "Karen" there is a sense of regret, Berninger singing "I've lost direction, and I'm past my peak/I'm telling you this isn't me", finally singing "Karen, believe me, you just haven't seen my good side yet". By "Looking for Astronauts" it's already "a little too late for this"; Berninger sings "Bye bye bye/We know we're gone" and gives up with the lines "You know you have a permanent piece/of my medium-sized American heart". As if in reflection of the relationship, "Daughters of the SoHo Riots", Berninger asks "How can anybody know/How they got to be this way", though he admits "You were right about the end/It didn't make a difference/Everything I can remember/I remember wrong". "Val Jester" is the most blunt song on the album, in which he expresses remorse for letting her go. By "City Middle" Berninger has only one thing to say about Karen: "I have weird memories of you".

The love songs in Boxer, on the other hand, seem mostly concentrated in "Slow Show", "Apartment Story" and "Start a War". Almost like a three-song narrative, "Slow Show" begins with the desire to "hurry home to you/Put on a slow, dumb show for you/And crack you up/So you can put a blue ribbon on my brain". The song ends with the incredibly sweet "You know I dreamed about you/for twenty-nine years before I saw you". However, "Apartment Story" immediately follows, where "everything we did believe/is diving diving diving diving off the balcony"; he summarizes the relationship with the lines "So worry not/All things are well/We'll be alright/We have our looks and perfume on". The three-song narrative ends with "Start a War", with the admission "We expected something, something better than before, we expected something more", but ends with "Walk away now and you're gonna start a war".

There are few albums that manage to be so perfectly honest and personal, yet ambiguous enough for the listener to have room to grow with the album. Instead of choosing easy lines, both Alligator and Boxer are intricate albums whose meanings manage to change with time. Though considered "grower" albums, when these albums finally reach you, they really hit you. It's easy to consider these albums as emotionally dark, but perhaps the biggest surprise is the amount of humor, hopefulness and willingness to love that can be found in the album, even when love itself may be resigning and not exactly what you expect. 

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