Friday, June 16th, 2017

The National – The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness

And with this we wrap up inter-National Friday (ha ha… ha…).


Ian Mathers: Six weeks from now I’d probably give this another point or two; the National’s little grace notes always grow on me, whether it’s Matt Berninger’s halting delivery of the title against the piano or those little guitar licks or everything about Bryan Devendorf’s drumming, and it’s exciting that after a trio of good (maybe great, depending on your demographics, genre interest, and mood) records that sounded pretty much the same, their palette feels like it’s expanding a bit. And of course they’ve lost none of their knack for weirdly relatable, gnomic turns of phrase. If they feel a bit adrift, even confused by life in 2017, they’re somewhere in a long, long line of people feeling the same. Did anyone else see it in those clouds at the end? First Nixon, then a frowning cartoon dog, then nothing.

Joshua Copperman: After a series of projects post-Trouble Will Find Me, which branched off into dance-pop and zoney six-minute jams, in addition to a several-hour Grateful Dead tribute, The National have reunited and brought the spirit of those projects with them. “TSODITD” is something of a massive send-up, with a fuzzy guitar solo from an almost-always-solo-averse Dessner brother, an unusually bouncy bass line from Scott Devendorf, and Bryan Devendorf’s normally tasteful drum fills replaced with a big, dumb entrance. Most of all, Matt Berninger is intentionally incomprehensible here; the punchline of “I can’t explain it any other way” is so National, coming as it does after a series of surreal, even-vaguer-than-usual lyrics. The run-on line “…ALSO no other faith is light enough for this place” is one such example, which seems to emphasize trust in one another over trust in a higher power. Even as it takes multiple listens to understand what he means at first, the intensity of the arrangement gives his pleas for solace some actual urgency. “TSODITD”, for all the ways it stretches their sound, retains the qualities of their best music; the times when every individual member locks in with one another, and densely layered textures creep in to the mix until the final product becomes grandiose, yet still intimate.

Tim de Reuse: The National were supposed to try a different approach on this album, no? That’s what I vaguely remember from some interview a year or two ago, which is just as well, because I think the band were quietly hoping we’d forget they ever mentioned it. There are, to their credit, timid, surface-level evolutions in sound: the open-faced production, the barely perceptible “oohs” underneath it all, the carefully manicured guitar solo. For the most part, though, this is a song by The National, with The National structure and The National chord progressions and The National melancholia courtesy of Matt Berninger’s ever-strong penchant for stream-of-consciousness that occasionally happens to rhyme — none of which are things I usually dislike, mind you! — but there is still some strange sense of restraint through the whole tune that prevents it from reaching the levels of oblivious sentimentality necessary for this whole The National machine to function. I mean, guys, if you want so badly to repeat yourselves, whatever, follow your hearts; but I’d rather you just write “Sea of Love” again than this weird, flimsy compromise.

Alfred Soto: “We’re in a different kind of thing now,” Matt Berninger avers, and I admire his delusions. Other than a dark and stormy guitar squall, garrulous title, and more prominent piano, “The System…” sulks as defiantly as any other release in the band’s catalog. At this point you care or you don’t, and I’m bored of claiming they don’t matter — the sound of post-thirty white angst, I suppose, deserves an airing too.

Alex Clifton: I’ve never really got The National–something about Matt Berninger’s voice is both beautiful and too unsettling for me–but I found myself tapping my foot while listening to this. There’s something alive about this track that I’ve found lacking in indie rock over the last few years. My favourite acts–the Killers, Franz Ferdinand, the Arctic Monkeys–wrote fast, furious songs, stuff that leaves you breathless. Yet in recent years, that drive from rock music has disappeared; everything’s a quiet dirge on the radio, sparse and unfulfilling. This song, however, is catchy and pulsating and moves forward, with a killer guitar solo in the middle to boot. It’s the the best of mid-2000s indie rock mixed with something more dramatic, with trumpet and synths colliding with an edgy guitar to produce a song that’s gripping and propulsive. It’s urgent and breaks up the monotony of the charts. If this is what The National has to offer these days, sign me up.

Edward Okulicz: The National’s sound makes the distinctly non-lucid sound lucid, and in that sense this even beats the one about being afraid you might eat someone’s brains. But played like this and sung like that it comes across as like a page out of an intriguing novella, or its audiobook form read by a serious narrator who’s the only one aware of the terror ahead.

Maxwell Cavaseno: Slowly, I crept through the dark shrubs, into the topiary prison. There I found the corpse of Ian Curtis, 85 percent of his body removed by Anton Corbijn still convincing people he has artistic talent over the last 30-odd years, and the plants moving over to take over the remainder. His one eye looked at me all mournful while moss had not only emerged in his pores to make him look more rancid than possible, but formed a beard with Errol Flynn mustache. Beneath this cadaver of a man the vines were snared around a dead boom-box playing “Lust for Life,” but likewise the shrubs had claimed the carcass of the device so that the drum fill came out as a polite pulse and the guitar occasionally squalled out to sound like AOL dial-up. Solemnly, I turned away in disgust, knowing this would be a perfect tourist trap for indie dads across the world, who would take solace in how much they felt like he looked. Later, that tatterdemalion horror became a single released for a National album.

Josh Love: The guys in The National were past 30 when they broke through to widespread notice and acclaim, so I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that they haven’t gone all gooey and benign like so many other bands at this stage of their life cycle. Matt Berninger thankfully still seems like a miserable bastard, laying out an exquisite tableau of romantic and spiritual isolation while a jagged guitar riff scrawls his real, ugly feelings on the wall.

Thomas Inskeep: The rumbling rhythm track is reminiscent of “Ballroom Blitz,” of all things. Matt Berninger’s vocals are kind of bass-y and British; I can’t necessarily explain what that means, exactly, they just come off kind of British to my ears. Then I remember that I was rather fond of his side project EL VY, and it starts to come together for me. This is a bit late ’80s college rock, less Amerindie and more Bad Seeds. These guys find a groove and lock into it, and let Berninger do his thing above it: wise choice.

Austin Brown: It feels like every album, The National moves further and further away from making full use of Bryan Devendorf’s drumming, the thing that always made them far more interesting than the mope-rock they got pigeonholed as. Here, the neurotic precision that defines Devendorf’s best work (“Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Apartment Story,” “Squalor Victoria,” “Graceless”) is absent, replaced by a far less exciting rollicking slacker pose. This was a little true of some of the songs on Trouble Will Find Me, but there the rest of the band picked up the slack, with Matt Berninger turning in some of his most specific and acute songs yet. Here, though, he’s on autopilot, droning through his lyrical habitus without letting anything distinctive poke up above the surface–and the rest of the band follows suit. Even the midpoint guitar solo feels like an empty exercise. I know the band is supposedly more relaxed now, far more at ease in their songwriting, and good for them. But it’s starting to look like there was a lot of productive value to the tense recording sessions that produced Boxer and High Violet

Reader average: [7.81] (11 votes)

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2 Responses to “The National – The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness”

  1. i am not sure i had ever actually seen a picture of the national before, but i saw this one and went “oh, chris dowd, dominic monaghan, sean lennon, chester bennington, and ben folds”

  2. At least one of National 2 and National 5 is Dan Stevens, possibly both.

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