100 Best Songs of the 2010s – #33: “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” by The National

The song at #33 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is the gorgeous “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” by American alternative folk-rock band The National. The group have been putting out consistently good and well-received music for over 20 years, and one of their finest works was their critically acclaimed and Grammy-winning seventh studio album Sleep Well Beast. The lead single from that album, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” is a phenomenal track, and one of the best of 2017. I was shocked to learn this was the band’s very first single to ever appear on any Billboard chart, going all the way to #1 on the Adult Alternative chart.

The song opens with a dreamy a cappella female vocal, then lovely piano chords and gnarly guitars ensue, propelled by an urgent drumbeat. The band uses a palette of richly-layered instrumentals, including a subtle trumpet fluttering over propulsive percussion to create a dramatic backdrop for singer Matt Berninger stunning and heartfelt baritone vocals. Aaron Dessner’s blistering guitar solo in the bridge, unusual for The National, is a highlight of the song.

The band has never been afraid to express their liberal political views in their songs, and while “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” is not political per se, it was inspired by the political mood in America and the election of Trump. In an interview with Pitchfork, Berninger stated that the song is generally about “the strange way our world and our idea of identity mutates—sometimes overnight, as we’ve seen recently. It’s an abstract portrait of a weird time we’re in.”

Maybe I listen more than you think
I can tell that somebody sold you
We said we’ve never let anyone in
We said we’d only die of lonely secrets

The system only dreams in total darkness
Why are you hiding from me?
We’re in a different kind of thing now
All night you’re talking to God

I thought that this would all work out after a while
Now you’re saying that I’m asking for too much attention
Also no other faith is light enough for this place
We said we’d only die of lonely secrets

The system only dreams in total darkness
Why are you hiding from me?
We’re in a different kind of thing now
All night you’re talking to God

I cannot explain it
Any other, any other way
I cannot explain it
Any other, any other way

The song’s surreal video features digitally-altered imagery in mostly black and blue colors.

4 thoughts on “100 Best Songs of the 2010s – #33: “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” by The National

  1. hanspostcard

    I believe I had read an article or review of The National back around 2005- it sounded like something I’d be into- bought the album that was out at the time- Alligator- loved it and then bought their previous couple albums- and kept up with them after that- I do need to get their latest CD from last year… Great band.

    Liked by 1 person

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