The rolling piano chords that jump out from behind the ambient backdrop at the start of Boxer seem innocuous, like a bowsprit poking through the fog. But this vessel turns out to be a pirate ship. The rhythm section puts some momentum behind the deep, dark, mumbled impressions of “Fake Empire,” and then the twin guitars of Aaron and Brice Dessner fire off a distorted salvo to offset a punchy horn arrangement. That tension between joy and despair plus Matt Berninger’s distinctive delivery — the gently laconic half-muttered croon of a melancholy manchild with a saber-sharp tongue — have made Brooklyn’s the National a highly regarded sleeper. So if “Fake Empire” sounds like a bridge back to 2005’s Alligator, that’s because the National are one of those rare bands whose pleasures are revealed sparingly, over time, in hidden hooks and prickly poetics.
There are echoes of Nick Drake and Nick Cave, Lambchop and Tindersticks, Joy Division and the Smiths on Alligator and the more orchestral Boxer. And like a perfectly attired woman, the National are fleetingly alluring, never gaudy, subtly enchanting. Whether it’s the way a seemingly earnest lyric like “I’ll get money/I’ll get funny again” (“Start a War”) leads down a dark path from fingerpicked acoustic guitar to near dissonance or simply their ability to give just enough of themselves but never too much, these guys are more than the sum of inherited wisdom and mismatched parts. Bands like the National don’t have to travel in packs: they can walk proudly alone.
The National + Shapes and Sizes | Middle East downstairs, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge | June 21+ 22 | 617.864.EAST