Track Review: The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness by The National

By Kieran Cannon (@kiercannon)

Following a series of tantalisingly cryptic clues dropped across social media The National have announced details of the long-awaited follow-up to their critically acclaimed 2013 album Trouble Will Find Me in addition to a substantial list of dates for their upcoming world tour. Signaling a change in direction from their previous efforts, Sleep Well Beast (due to be released September 8th) promises to explore an altogether darker side of the band and their latest single The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness offers a glimpse into this experimental new music.

Perhaps as foretold by the recurring house motif in their recent website redesign, the new record will deal extensively with marriage and personal relationships: issues closer to home. The focus of System, however, seems to be the idea of transition; certainly, the line “we’re in a different kind of thing now” could be interpreted several ways. While likely a reference to the turbulent political events of the past few years and our rapidly changing society, it could also be a statement of intent from the Cincinnati five-piece whose musical essence remains very much the same – elegant, atmospheric sound – but executed in its most vigorous and innovative manner to date.

Contrasting with dreamy piano melodies, Bryce Dessner’s sharp, angular guitar parts cut a path for Matt Berninger’s creaking vocals – a significant departure from previous records where all five band members deliver a symphonic wall of sound. Here, the song feels like it has been assembled piece by piece, instrument by instrument. Stellar percussion work from Bryan Devendorf propels the song forward towards its climax, featuring an unprecedented guitar solo; perhaps a nod to the Dessner twins’ recent collaboration Day of the Dead, a tribute to the groundbreaking rock group The Grateful Dead.

The National have set out to record an album free from constraints; one which channels the ecstatic energy of their studio jams. The final refrain of System, “I can’t explain it any other, any other way”, sees Berninger stretched to the limits of his vocal capacity, similar to his end-of-performance outbursts on stage. If any of this is a reliable indicator, Sleep Well Beast threatens to be their best recording yet.

9/10


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