Moping guitar-rock is rarely something I seek out. Because it's so easy do, and because an audience is so easy to find (people eat this stuff UP!), the world is overstuffed with REM leftovers.
I adore the moping guitar-rock made by The National, however. And I think I like them for the same reasons you do: The National's music accomplishes something not often seen in pop music. It creates a vivid, uniquely unflinching picture of adulthood. Instead of coasting on the fumes of howling libido and lingering teen rage, this band brood over the uncomfortable fit of grown-up compromise.
My favorite example on Boxer is the single "Mistaken for Strangers". On the wings of a gasping, groaning guitar duet and an intricate drum stomp that gives the song a level of propulsion not normally heard at such a slow tempo, this song depicts that desperate, vacant life you get handed once you finally buy your first suit and start turning into that cynical nobody "passing the night under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights". Angels don't want to watch over you, the song says. Probably because you're so empty and inauthentic.
Elsewhere, the narrators of "Green Gloves" and "Slow Show" miss their old friends ("Hope they're staying glued together/I have arms for them,") and stand awkwardly at the punchbowl, too paralyzed by regret to socialize normally. Relationships are passive-aggressive, self-doubt is suffocatingly present.
Instrumental flourishes like harmoniums and french horns are used to augment certain songs, and the effect is always to deepen the sad-sack musical sigh. Drummer Bryan Devendorf holds back when he needs to, often entering a song only when it is well underway to inject a raging bitterness that turns the maudlin, plucked guitars and pianos a seething bite. The National are pretty conservative, musically. Imagine Bruce Springsteen without the pandering, slogans and gospel-of-rock evangelism and you're not far off. It's good to see people using the same old wheel unusually well rather than re-inventing it.
Singer Matt Beringer is so convincingly exhausted and pitiful with regret that you could almost believe he was born in a cubicle, already middle-aged, and went straight to work preparing for an endless string of soul-sucking performance reviews. If that description makes it sound like Boxer is a chore to listen to, you should know that it's ultimately uplifting. After his awkward punchbowl hem-haw, the narrator in "Slow Show" hurries home to a girl he dreamed about for 29 before he met her (in a very-pretty reference to an earlier National song.) This necktied thing we grow into is staid, but not lonely.