Matt Berninger review, Serpentine Prison: Solo album is more aligned to The National’s earlier folk-rock ballads

‘Serpentine Prison’ is not quite the ‘safe and happy’ album that Matt Berninger had planned (Chantal Anderson)
‘Serpentine Prison’ is not quite the ‘safe and happy’ album that Matt Berninger had planned (Chantal Anderson)

Matt Berninger had long wanted to make a covers album in the vein of Willie Nelson’s Stardust, his father’s favourite record and one that has made The National frontman feel “safe and happy” since his childhood. After recording The National’s I Am Easy to Find, he wrote to Stardust’s producer and arranger Booker T Jones, sending song suggestions – and a few of his own demos. Jones was more into the latter, and Berninger’s debut solo album was conceived and completed in mere months.

As such, Serpentine Prison is not quite the “safe and happy” album that he had planned, but rather one he’s described as being about “s*** I’m dealing with, or that people I know are dealing with”. The mood is sober, and the sound more aligned to the band’s earlier folk-rock ballads. Yet there’s a looseness here in the downbeat tempos and half-spoken vocals, especially on the languid “Silver Springs”, where he duets with David Bowie’s bassist Gail Ann Dorsey.

The spotlight is firmly on Berninger. The gravity of his baritone voice is bolstered by tasteful instrumentation from a host of guest performers including Andrew Bird and Scott Devendorf. On two country-flavoured numbers, piano and swelling brass accompany “Take Me Out of Town”, while mournful strings and Hammond organ colour “Collar of Your Shirt”. On the heartache-fuelled “Distant Axis”, a swooning anthem that shimmers with pizzicato, atmospheric reverb and emotive backing vocals, he lays bare his fragility (“I didn’t even hear the door/ I was looking up at the levels in between us/ As I was sinking through the floor”). The gruff “Loved So Little” is redolent of Nick Cave’s evocative observations on “Lament” (“with your pulled-on hair and your punched-up lips”).

It’s only occasionally that the songs feel that bit too close to Berninger’s day job. To these ears, album closer “Serpentine Prison” bears an uncanny – if stripped-back – similarity to “Friend of Mine”. But for the most part, this is a Berninger record, and it’s very good.

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