by Preston Radtke
The impending drizzle that is the next album by The National finally revealed its arrival time on May 11. After two days of teasing, internet allusions, and vagueness the Cincinnati/Brooklyn-based rock band announced their upcoming album Sleep Well Beast, to be released on September 8. Furthermore, they also dropped the first single off the record, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” The track is a perplexing barrage of themes and instrumentation that harkens back to the outfit’s material off of Alligator and finds Matt Berninger’s voice in a more weathered and raw state. Though the band has stated that material off of the upcoming LP will be more electronic in nature, this song is traditional in its rock instrumentation. A solid enough addition to The National’s catalog, the track is satisfactory in its overarching structure yet disappointing in context.
“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” begins with an angelic sounding backing chorus that hints at Gregorian chants before Berninger takes control. Unfortunately, that brief holy mood doesn’t reappear within the song. Once Berninger begins troubadouring, the song takes on a more classic National aesthetic. Not nearly as dreary and brooding as material off of Trouble Will Find Me, the song features more rhythm and a faster pace reminiscent of many standouts off of Alligator. Pronounced and relatively aggressive guitar chords give this song more pace and life than other slow, morose National output. As usual, Bryan Devendorf’s progressive drum orchestrations give the song just enough punch and direction so as to not lose the listener in Berninger’s vocal gloominess.
Berninger’s voice is one of the major pitfalls of “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” The National frontman sounds tired and older on this track. Additionally, his vocal harmonies and expeditions sound awkward and hastily created. Take the falling vocal tone of the repeated phrase “the system only dreams in total darkness.” It sounds as if Berninger is trying to stuff too many lyrics into a small instrumental window. That section of the song, which reappears several times throughout, sounds cramped and makes Berninger sound out-of-touch and vocally clunky.
Other Members of “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” Family:
My Morning Jacket: “Evil Urges”
Grizzly Bear: “Dory”
Beirut: “The Penalty”
All images from Dork
The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
"The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" is a slightly underwhelming track to be the initial release off of the band's upcoming album. Aside from the angelic open, there are no instances of the promised electronica or synthetics throughout the track. Additionally, the lyricism and backing instrumentation aren't integrated well enough to yield a successful first single. Berninger's vocals at times fly in the face of backing guitars and percussives. His delivery doesn't match the tempo and fervor of his fellow bandmates. Should someone discover The National with this song, they won't get a glimpse of the intimate nature and intrusive atmospherics that The National has excelled at previously.