Boxer (Live in Brussels) will end up being little more than a curiosity.
In 2017, the National’s celebrated, brilliant breakthrough album Boxer turned 10 years old, and the band seemed to do as much as they could to avoid commemorating this fact at all. That’s not surprising, given whom we’re talking about here. That same year, after all, saw the release of an excellent new album from the band (Sleep Well Beast), and the National have steadfastly avoided the sort of backwards-looking self-mythologizing that can be a trap for most artists. Then, in late November of that year, they picked a night in Brussels to go through the album’s songs from front to back. Who knows what prompted this fit of nostalgia from a band seemingly resistant to it, but it was kind of them to share that night with the rest of the world in the form of this live record, the band’s first official live release.
Right away, one notices an incongruity with this live performance of Boxer, and it lies in what the band are as a live act in 2017-18 versus what they were as studio performers in 2007. Boxer is a quiet record: it unfolds slowly over repeated listens, with each spin revealing new musical shades or highlighting different turns of phrase from Matt Berninger. It’s also a very dour affair, something that Berninger draws attention to in jest when the band finishes “Guest Room.” In short, it’s not the sort of record that necessarily demands live reinterpretation, especially not at the grander scale that the National perform at now. Thus, some songs work in the bigger-sounding context (particularly the pairing of “Slow Show” and “Apartment Story,” which have been staples of their live sets for a while), and some don’t (“Brainy” feels sluggish and bears all the marks of a song that this band hasn’t performed live in quite a long time.)
Aside from the tracklist, though, this is just a live album. Fortunately, it’s a live album from one of the best live bands in the world right now, and Boxer (Live in Brussels) does well to highlight what makes the band so captivating in person. When the band plays the more uptempo tracks from the album, they feel comfortable cutting loose and bringing a different level of intensity than one would expect, particularly on the short jam that wraps up “Squalor Victoria.” Furthermore, while the quieter moments on Boxer may not have the intimacy that they do on the record, Berninger is still capable of toning his voice down to a sinewy croon that invites you into the broken world he describes. If Boxer (Live in Brussels) succeeds at all, it’s because the National were already a fantastic live band in the first place.
While some fans would been clamoring for either a record like this or a full-album tour on the album’s anniversary, it’s likely that Boxer (Live in Brussels) will end up being little more than a curiosity, a quick footnote in the band’s larger career. Funnily enough, what this album does do is whet one’s appetite for a full live album from the band, one that contains the songs where they really shine as grandiose performers. They don’t quite get to do that by revisiting Boxer, but it’s still nice to hear them look back and acknowledge where they came from as they keep moving forward.