Album Review: Matt Berninger – Serpentine Prison

[Book’s Records/Concord; 2020]

It’s normally a pretty big deal when the lead singer of one of most famous indie bands decides to release a solo album but for Matt Berninger it seems hardly a wave in the ocean. Not only is he not the first member of The National to branch off and do his own thing (see: Royal Green, LNZNDRF, Pfarmers, Clogs), it’s not even the first time Berninger has released material under his own name. Thus his new solo record, Serpentine Prison, feels more like an eventuality than any kind of surprise or shock.

And that’s another thing: it may have Matt Berninger’s name on the cover, but Serpentine Prison is definitely not just him working alone in front of a microphone. Andrew Bird, two members of The Walkmen, fellow National bandmate Scott Devendorf, David Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, and other EL VY member Brent Knopf are among the list of musicians and contributors to the album. Berninger even says that the album was going to be called Matt Berninger and Friends at one point, which as corny as it would have been, would have been a more accurate way to present the record.

The album’s best weapon, though, is its producer, Booker T. Jones. He might be best known for working on records by legends like Bill Withers, Otis Redding, Rita Coolidge, and Willie Nelson, but he seems just as at home here beside Berninger. His production is immaculate and airy, allowing songs to provide that solid foundation that Berninger can build off of. He’s also present on a lot of tracks, playing piano or bass, but most recognizably the Hammond organ. It adds both a hopeful and funereal tone to the music, lilting towards Nashville country inflections at times.

It’s an easy assessment to make, but the 10 songs here still sound like versions of songs by The National. “One More Second” shuffles by like a shadow from Cherry Tree, while “Oh Dearie” has an acoustic sheen and closeness that recalls the band’s first two albums. The regal horns on “Serpentine Prison” even sound like the band’s longtime arranger Padma Newsome snuck into the studio for a few minutes.

This is typecasting, of course, but it’s the power of Berninger’s voice, which will always have that synonymous association about it. His deadpan baritone is a reassuring voice, the voice of worn, measured calmness – something that is all the more welcome during difficult times. Even when his message is despondent (like on the title track, where he wishes about not passing on his anxiety and alcoholism to his daughter, or “Oh Dearie” where he’s detailing paralyzing depression), it’s still a pleasure to hear.

He’s still a master of phrases that only he could make sound like they have the weight of the world behind them. “It’s so hard to be loved so little,” he sings with a genuine sense of alarm on “Loved So Little”, like his life is on the line. “You fall apart at easy gatherings,” he offers on the sweetly-tinged “Collar Of Your Shirt”; “I’m always in the way” he adds when turning the spotlight on himself. Opening track “My Eyes Are T-Shirts” is ripe with similes that any novelist or poet would kill for; trust Berninger to then casually begin the album with one of his best couplets: “My eyes are t-shirts, they’re so easy to read / I wear ‘em for you but they’re all about me.”

There’s no doubt that Berninger is the main draw here (the lyrically overstuffed “Serpentine Prison” warrants repeated listens just to appreciate each rhyme), but the music behind him is just as worth of the price of entry. On “Distant Axis” the chimes sound like nearby fireworks shooting up into the sky, while the crystalline guitar notes on “Silver Springs” are like sunlight reflecting on water. When the music opens up for an instrumental section, the players don’t colour outside the lines too much. As restrained as they might be (which feels down to the tight arrangements and clean production more than anything else), they still give the impression of Berninger exhaling and stretching out, like he’s enjoying calling the shots.

Even when Serpentine Prison lacks, it still sounds perfectly nice. “Take Me Out Of Town” plods by over piano chords for four minutes without saying anything particularly interesting. The horns try to elevate the song, but it ends up being never more than an average cut. “Oh Dearie” has depression and hopelessness sounding a little too spotless, glossing over the despondency of the song. With its opening piano tinkle, “All For Nothing” sounds a little too like a 90s pop ballad, but thankfully the brass lifts it away from trite territory with a defiant charge against the titular, lonely call.

It’s tempting as ever with Berninger’s work to let it do its slow burn thing, and while repeated listens are far from unrewarding or unpleasant, the depth doesn’t feel quite as vast as what we have come to expect. Still, there’s no doubting that Berninger fans new and old will welcome the album and embrace it too. He’s spreading his wings a little wider, leaning into the styles that influenced him growing up, and even occasionally reaching out of his comfort zone – as on the aforementioned “Collar Of Your Shirt”, where he stretches his voice higher without it being lodged in frustration or anger). As he does all that – with  the help of friends and peers – he brings with him a certain modesty. He needn’t be so shy though, because Serpentine Prison shows us something we already knew: Berninger shines when the focus is on him.