Album announcement innovators take note: The National have done a great job rolling out their upcoming release in a secretive-yet-informative way. Two days ago, they unveiled a mysterious 30-second trailer. Yesterday, they shared a song snippet and officially announced the album and release date (Sleep Well Beast, September 8th) via posters in select cities. Last night, they dropped the first single. No rumors, no prolonged wait, no fan theory-baiting, just a snappy two-day announcement process. That seems like the way it should be.
But onto the single. “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” combines a ton of seemingly disparate elements-- a haunting female chorus, a shuffling electronic beat, jagged guitar phrases, Burt Bacharach-style horns-- on top of The National’s usual blend of plaintive piano, kinetic drumming, and Matt Berninger’s forlorn baritone. It’s an even more jarring attempt to progress the band’s sound than 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, which sometimes seemed like a direct response to jokes that the band’s art project of playing “Sorrow” for six hours straight wasn’t that different from a standard National show.
On that last album, the band brought in collaborators such as Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent, and Sharon Van Etten to diversify their sound, which produced results such as gentle folk ballad “Fireproof,” the Springsteen-esque “This is the Last Time,” and the grandiose “Pink Rabbits.” None of those, however, come close to how unexpected “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” sounds. It’s not disorienting or out-of-character per se-- these guys have been playing together long enough to be able to wrest their signature sound out of any seemingly uncharted territory-- but it’s adventurous in a way that The National’s songs rarely are.
By adding subtle, well-deployed frills to their usual no-nonsense ways, The National keep things interesting while still leaving plenty of room to perform their well-loved hits on tour. As evidenced by their album rollout, they’re not provocateurs, but they’re branching out in ways that are rare for bands with eighteen-year tenures.