Track Marks: “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” by The National

For the impending end of 2017, some of our writers are going back and talking about beloved songs from this year, especially from artists not covered on our upcoming podcast.

We covered The National in our music podcast, but I didn’t get a chance to say this: I haven’t listened to Sleep Well Beast all that much. It’s not that I haven’t loaded it up and hit the play button. But, four songs in, I get to “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” and I can’t get past it. I need at least three listens before I’m able to move on. It is, without a doubt, the best song by The National.

Perhaps that’s because it’s also the most song by The National. It’s all there from the beginning, but the song slowly, confidently lets them build: The beat, the piano, that angular guitar riff. There are horns. I’m a sucker for rock songs with horns (though oddly enough I never had a ska phase). But the horns aren’t blaring, they’re just lifting up the melody. There are voices, too, and not just Matt Berninger’s. They help the song move from the low rumblings of lonely secrets to the higher, soaring talks with God.

I used to have a theory that the best album titles were really just phrases you hear all the time, but taken out of everyday context. I still mostly believe that there will never be an album title better than Northern State’s Can I Keep This Pen? (When I heard that Limp Bizkit had an album called Results May Vary, I was like, goddamn them, that’s good.) I never really thought that applied to lyrics until I heard Berninger’s exasperated, “I can’t explain it any other way.” How many times have I said that, and how come it never sounded so beautiful?

Writer’s note: There’s an official video, too, but I liked the live one.