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It took me about 19 seconds to fall in love with Boxer. All thanks to the masterpiece of an opening track “Fake Empire”.
An album that is worthy of being called a classic is one that you can spot within the first few bars. Pet Sounds has this, and so does Boxer.
A swooping guitar swell, the tape hiss from the upright piano track, topped with the speaker-filling vocals of Matt Berninger’s voice. I was (and still am) floored every time I put it on.
I love trying to think of when a song was recorded during the record-making process. I like to think this was the first track The National laid down onto tape at Peter Katis’s studio in Bridgeport CT. But then I always get thrown off when history tells us that “Tomorrow Never Knows” was the first track recorded on The Beatles’ Revolver. Who the hell knows what happens in the studio…
Peter Katis is without a doubt a genius. His work with Interpol, Frightened Rabbit, Mates of State, and The National have staked his claim in the hall of god-like producers/engineers fame. His work may be best shown on Boxer, and especially on “Fake Empire”.
Initially the song sounds like it’s going to be super lo-fi. The hiss from the tape, the simple upright piano chords at low level. And then BAM, the vocals kick in. Now you know you’re in for something different. Then guitars slowly start creeping in to back up the piano part. Then come the drums. In typical Peter Katis fashion, you get this raw kick thumping with a hint of snares ringing behind it. Wait a few more bars, and the rest of the kit hits you in the face with all of its indie/Steely Dan glory.
The song continues to grow from here. One drum fill and we’re off to the races.
Band in full swing, Matt Berninger still booming over it all. And then comes the chunking guitar leading us into horns that seem to descend from the sky. The anticipation builds at a relatively slow pace into a manic frenzy of horn lines being held out and others hopping around in a staccato fashion, all leaving you waiting for what’s to come next.
This is one that should be taught in all production classes around the world.
Berninger’s oblique, evocative lyrics for The National are, almost exclusively, about relationships. “Fake Empire” stands out as one of the few that can plausibly be interpreted on two levels, both the personal and the political.
On the one hand, it’s about going out drinking with your friends (stay out super late tonight…put a little something in our lemonade, and take it with us). On the other hand, the title phrase (We’re half-awake in a fake empire) and the quintessentially American allusions (picking apples, making pies…bluebirds on our shoulders) strongly suggest that it the song is also about the state of country during the writing and recording of the album, released in May 2007 (four years after the start of the Iraq War).
Berninger spoke to the intersection of the two interpretations in an interview. “Fake Empire” has political allusions but it’s also just a song about going out and forgetting your troubles. If anything, it’s more about trying to avoid thinking about the state of the world.” Bluebirds, pies, and spiked lemonade, and hanging out with your friends—or a populace that’s willfully pretending that everything is a-okay in America and with its place in the world.
Appropriately enough, then, an instrumental version of the song was used in an ad for the Obama campaign in the 2008 presidential election.
Have a look at the guys making their network television debut on Letterman introducing the TV viewing world to their sound with “Fake Empire”.