Musically, the best way to begin a masterpiece is with a masterpiece. Take Boxer, the 2007 album from American indie-rock band The National, indisputable in its status as a triumph in the aforementioned. The record is a probing, perturbed collection of tracks, that scales beautiful, devastating heights in its exploration of post-millennial adultism. Within its 43 minute duration, it signalled the band’s rise from interesting outsiders to one of the most important bands to come out America in the past two decades. Fake Empire, the record’s opening track, successfully captures a little bit of everything that’s brilliant about Boxer as a collective body of music. It’s a gorgeous, maundering anthem that begins distant, and concludes with glorious crescendo, featuring frontman Matt Berninger at his figurative finest. In 3 minutes and 27 seconds, it sets the tone for one of the finest musical releases this side of the 21st century.
The National’s trick is in their trenchant competency. As a collective, they understand their strengths, and emphasise them at every opportunity. Berninger is one of the finest lyricists writing today; bespectacled and bearded, he plays the role of a booze-soaked academic, capable of conjuring some of songwriting’s most memorable imagery.
‘Stay out super-late tonight / Picking apples, making pies / Put a little something in our lemonade / And take it with us / We’re half-awake, in a Fake Empire,’ he purrs during Fake Empire’s opening verse.
‘Tip-toe through our shiny city / With our diamond slippers on / Do our gay ballet on ice / Bluebirds on our shoulders / We’re half-awake, in a Fake Empire.’
It’s a striking, tranquil beginning from the baritone vocalist, that sees his bandmates construct a delicate audible blanket around his murmurs. Aaron Dessner’s clockwork piano-playing is the sole instrumental accompaniment for the first half of the track, building slowly in conjunction with Berninger’s verse, allowing his pensive observations to weave back and forth as the song begins to reach its bittersweet conclusion.
And with The National, believe – it’s always bittersweet. While Fake Empire whispers of a dreamy, utopic existence, the real message lies in its distance. This Empire that Berninger has constructed, is, after all, Fake.
“In reality, the lyrics of that song are about not wanting to think about politics,” he claimed, during an interview with VICE in 2008. “It’s pretty critical of the way our country works. But the music is uplifting and grand. It has an emotional weight to it.”
As an album, Boxer explores the notion of disenfranchisement, but not in a manner that’s exclusive to politics. Berninger’s characters often seem disillusioned with life itself, constructing a host of different fantasies in order to achieve temporary escape. In Apartment Story, he speaks of wanting to ‘stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz’, whilst Slow Show sees him declaring that ‘you could drive a car through my head in five minutes, from one side over to the other’. Whether it’s the late-night garden party of Gospel, or the talk of spectral transfiguring that makes Green Gloves such a haunting piece of music, Boxer sees Berninger attempting to evade the everyday cruelties of reality. Fake Empire, the album’s stunning introduction, is the premier exercise in such escapism.
‘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 / We’re half awake in a fake empire,’ he cries, as the song finishes with an orchestral gust, over as soon as it really began. Its fleeting nature adds weight to the interim nature of the constructed nirvana; it never threatens to linger anywhere other than in the imagination – Matt Berninger’s imagination.
Fake Empire is Boxer’s synopsis, cheerleader and crowning moment with simultaneous wonder. Just like the album, it’s a wandering case-study of midlife anxiety, that somehow manages to find a beauty in the desolate. It’ll build you up, but it’ll break your heart, too.
Words by Niall Flynn