A debut solo work that makes the darkness picturesque
Philip Giouras
21:38 17th October 2020

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For the past two decades, Matt Berninger has been creating music as the frontman of The National. While he’s released music with side projects before, this is the first time he’s released a full-length project that's all his own. The past few years have seen The National slowly become a more collaborative project: last year’s incredible I Am Easy To Find in particular, featured a staggering amount of co-vocalists and features. On Serpentine Prison, Berninger strips it all back again.

This is an album that was originally intended as a cover record in the vein of one of Berninger’s childhood favourites: Willie Nelson's Stardust. It was through experimenting with those covers that instead inspired Berninger to craft fresh material. Spurred on by one of his musical heroes and album producer Booker T. Jones, he switched tack to a fully-fledged solo record.

The song that ultimately provoked Berninger and Jones to make the shift is the phenomenal ‘Distant Axis’ a brooding acoustic track that showcases Berninger’s unique vocal tone. Here’s a baritone that consistently hits introspective lows and the occasionally delicate high, such as when he pleads “if only you, if only you” during the track's chorus, or in the emotionally charged “baby don’t lie to me” wedged into fellow album highlight ‘One More Second’. 

Early on it becomes clear that this album tackles themes of collapsing relationships, existential fear of the world we surround ourselves with and crumbling failure...yet when Berninger's words combine with the production of Booker T. Jones they have a way of making all the darkness seem picturesque. Jones instills jazz style instrumentation that completely opens up ‘One More Second’, beautiful harmonies with former Bowie collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey on ‘Silver Springs’ (which features an intro highly reminiscent of the Ink Spot’s ‘I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire’) and a beautiful country flicker to 'Collar Of Your Shirt'.

The album tracklist calls out for the addition of 2019 collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers ‘Walking On A String’ which, whilst understandably wasn’t recorded during these sessions, would still feel such a natural fit amongst these tracks. 

Whilst the record never outstays its welcome, there is a lingering sense of familiarity in its second half. Those early first cuts are simply sensational, and the album's second half struggles to match the opening peaks. Title track ‘Serpentine Prison’ closes the record, a self-described epilogue of anxieties, created with unlikely inspiration from Dr. Zeus, in which Berninger embraces a rhythmic pattern, hypnotically drawing you into a bleak yet beautiful conclusion. 

Berninger has crafted an album that feels distinct from his other projects, but that’s not to say fans of The National won’t feel at home. From the incredible cover art to its nostalgic sound, Serpentine Prison has the feel of the masters of dark poetic beauty that have trodden the ground before him (Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave). Serpentine Prison may at times revel in the gloom among us, but there’s an undeniable beauty in the way he tells those stories. 

Serpentine Prison is out now. 

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Photo: Press