Track Review | The National, ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’
The National returns with “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” the promo single for its seventh studio album, Sleep Well Beast.
The National have been M.I.A for four years! In May 2013, the indie rock collective released Trouble Will Find Me, an album that debuted at no. 3 on the Billboard 200. Now, they return with Sleep Well Beast, which arrives September 8, 2017. Ahead of their seventh studio album, The National drops a unique single, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.”
“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” opens enigmatically, with synthesized, harmonic vocals. A few seconds in, the groove anchors down the single. Keyboard, electric guitar, bass, and drums make up the backdrop which lead vocalist Matt Berninger paints over. Perhaps he’s not the most commanding baritone, but his tone of voice fits this particular record perfectly. He isn’t content to reside in his lower register; he ascends and packs more punch dynamically as well.
What is the premise of the lengthily titled “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness?” Sam Sodomsky of Pitchfork asked the band in an interview. The response: “It’s an abstract portrait of the weird time we’re in.” That explains the odd vibes of the record. On the first verse, Berninger seems disappointed and arguably, deceived:
“Maybe I listen more than you think / I can tell that somebody sold you / We said we’ve never let anyone in / We said we’d only die of lonely secrets.”
That deception continues on throughout the chorus section:
“The system only dreams in total darkness / Why are you hiding from me? / We’re in a different kind of thing now / All night you’re talking to God.”
The second verse comes off similar to the first, with Berninger surprised by the condition of things. Like the first verse, this is approached like a relationship, even though the relationship is more metaphorical than literal. One final wrinkle adds to the record – something of a post-chorus or bridge: “I cannot explain it / Any other, any other way…” It’s not deep lyrically, but clearly, The National want the listener to question exactly what are they getting at.
All in all, The National return respectably with “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” The song is well-produced overall, while the concept makes the listener think. Is this an award-winning record? Maybe, maybe not, but The National has something working here.