The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness

Album: Sleep Well Beast (2017)
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Songfacts®:

  • This was released as the lead single from The National's seventh studio album, Sleep Well Beast. While most of the songs revolve around the fears and struggles within relationships, this was inspired by the divisive 2016 election that resulted in Donald Trump becoming president.

    "That one, for me, is a hibernation - the dark before the dawn sort of thing," singer and lyricist Matt Berninger told Pitchfork. "That one's less about relationships than it is more of 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."
  • When the song rose 2-1 on the Adult Alternative Songs airplay listing dated August 12, 2017, it became The National's first ever #1 on a Billboard songs chart.
  • Matt Berninger's wife, Carin Besser, is a former fiction editor for The New Yorker and she often helps him with his lyrics. The National vocalist told Uncut magazine how she helped him with this track.

    "The song was called something different for about a year. It was great, we loved it. But my wife described it as being like an amazing hot air balloon that wasn't flying yet. She's been writing with me since Boxer. She found that phrase, 'The system only dreams in total darkness,' in an earlier sketch and said, 'That's a better chorus. Let's build a song around that.'

    I was up all night, writing different lyrics and changing some of the arrangements. In the morning, Aaron (Berninger, keyboards) walked in. I didn't even say anything. I just started playing it. He said, 'Ok , we've got to do this version.' Any other time, he would have got in a car and I wouldn't have heard from him for two months."

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