It’s no surprise: Bryce Dessner could only get so good at writing intricate, post-minimalist new-classical music before it came to bear on his band in earnest. It’s been four years since The National‘s strong-yet-same-as-it-ever-was last album Trouble Will Find Me, and since then, Dessner has made huge strides in his alternate life as a composer of art music. He’s written numerous concert works for major symphony orchestras, taking cues from his buddy, bandmate, and sometimes-National-collaborator Nico Muhly (by now one of the most successful young new-music composers in the country) and sharing programs with Radiohead’s own increasingly-coveted master of orchestration Jonny Greenwood.
The National’s new single–rather unfortunately titled “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”–has Dessner’s influence on the surface of it. It’s inaugurated by a sweeping choral blast before the dizzying polyrhythms enter–the droning, mechanistic guitar and brassy synths offset by delicate piano chords. In approach, the arrangement resembles much of Dessner’s instrumental music, devised from layered, insistently repeated rhythmic blocks Tetris-ed together to form busily chattering edifices. The song is a lot more than a new collection of melancholic chords, like National anthems used to be in simpler times; the song feels assembled fussy piece by fussy piece, rather than just played through by a Rock Band–the kind The National are well-known for being.
On multiple listens different details stick out, though the main guitar blast, extroverted to a nearly-unpleasant extent for a National song, always pops up like a gangly guy wearing a huge hat in a movie theater. All of the action certainly threatens to overwhelm Matt Berninger, who is, as he sometimes is, the definitive control variable here: murmuring like he’s not hearing everything going on around him, sounding exactly like he always has. The empathetic reiteration of “I can’t explain it any other, any other way” is textbook National–almost self-plagiarism, calling back to “Mr. November, Mr. November/won’t fuck us over, won’t fuck us over,” “Squalor Victoria, Squalor Victoria,” and any other number of triumphant Berninger refrains.
But that is not a bad thing; the National made their name by selling ideas that seem too simple on first listen. And as with the best National songs, their insistent repetition of the banal mantra, voiced at the ever-tenuous apex of Berninger’s vocal range, justifies it. When the song bridges into a near-funky breakdown, dominated by a demented Neil-Young-like guitar solo, we forget the old reference points. By the end of its modest four minutes, the song has ceased to feel like the same old package dressed up in new, extravagant clothes, and more like the work of a band–widely known for doing basically the same thing well on every album and only getting more popular doing it–pushing concertedly in a new direction, filling up the space they used to leave with space trash and humming machinery. No matter what Matt’s singing about here (“We’re in a different kind of thing now,” “We said we’d only die of lonely secrets”) it sounds good, and “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” is a pleasant omen for whatever other uncommon amalgamations might come next on Sleep Well Beast.