Boxer, the album that many still consider The National’s finest work, turns 10 in less than a fortnight. Ever since that album’s release, the Cincinnati-bred five-piece has been saying that its next record would channel the cataclysmic energy of its live shows — but at some point during the recording sessions for 2010’s orchestral High Violet and 2013’s simmering Trouble Will Find Me, the band’s elegant instincts have seemingly gotten the better of its feral intentions. Mighty as those songs can sound live, it’s with “The System Only Dreams In Darkness” (the first single from the band’s seventh album, Sleep Well Beast) that The National has come through on its promise.
For frontman Matt Berninger, “System” is a prison — a seemingly bulletproof relationship that springs a leak when its other half seeks comfort beyond its insular confines. Maybe that’s from someone else; maybe, more worryingly, it’s from God. “You said we’d only die of lonely secrets,” he creaks, sounding disappointed that such a bleak fate (and classic Berninger turn of phrase) hasn’t come to pass.
But for the rest of the band, it’s a race toward freedom. Produced by Aaron Dessner (and recorded at his new Long Pond studio in Hudson, N.Y.), “System” has a sound that’s sharper than on The National’s past two albums — more propulsive than dense — and it gleams and shudders with nervous bravado. With processed women’s voices calling throughout the mix, there’s even something of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” in its thrilling ascent.
Most strikingly of all, Bryce Dessner’s fractured guitar motif boils over into the first bona fide solo of The National’s 18-year career — a freewheeling groove that may owe some to the band’s ongoing Grateful Dead collaborations and that manifests the looser side that it’s grown steadily more comfortable revealing. The National is no longer a Brooklyn band; its members now live on both coasts and in Europe. But the vigorous “System” betrays no disconnect — and may be its most direct single since “Mistaken For Strangers.” When Berninger roars, “I can’t explain it any other, any other way,” at the song’s brassy climax, it’s easy to imagine him referring to the strange and brilliant alchemy that’s sustained the band over the past decade.