Updated: Oct 22, 2020
The debut solo album from baritone-voiced frontman of The National is an intimate, heartfelt collaborative project. Just how did the record come about and how does it compare to his work with the Cincinnati Indie Folk giants?
"I am near the bottom / name the blues, I got 'em / I don't see no brightness / I'm kind of starting to like this" are the heartfelt vocals which close beautiful sixth track 'Oh Dearie' of The National frontman's solo debut, Serpentine Prison. Amazingly, these lyrics manage to summarise the allure of Matt Berninger himself. Gloomy and dark, exactly what we've all grown to love about him and his work thus far.
Despite feeling slightly underwhelmed by The National's 2019 album I Am Easy to Find - which was too bloated and inconsistent (though I seem to be alone in that opinion!) - I still went into this album with great expectation. Matt Berninger is one of the truly unique frontmen in the Indie world, his baritone vocals bringing a rich, sullen character to match the beautiful piano and guitar sounds produced by the Dressner brothers and co. One question, of course, remained; how would he fare without his bandmates from The National on this debut solo record? Well, the short answer is really well, but more on that later.
Riding solo from his day job
Serpentine Prison is produced by legendary Memphis musician, songwriter and producer Booker T. Jones, a man responsible for producing Willie Nelson's 1978 classic Stardust, an album Matt Berninger has admitted to being one of his favourites of all time. It features a host of collaborators including David Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, singer-songwriter (and member of Phoebe Bridgers' touring band) Harrison Whitford and The Walkman's Walter Martin.
From watching the music video for 'Serpentine Prison' you really gather the scale of the collaboration on offer, the intricate textures being performed perfectly. It also looked like a lot of fun to make too. Matt had initially planned to name the album 'Matt Berninger with friends' or 'Matt Berninger's Serpentine Prison' but concluded that both titles sounded stupid, instead being encouraged to call it a solo record. Speaking to The Pitchfork Review podcast in September, he spoke about how the new album came out after reaching out to Booker T. Jones in December 2018 to produce a covers album.
"Last summer we finally got into the studio with the covers we wanted to do but by this point I had shared with Booker lots of half baked originals, specifically 'Distant Axis', that I wrote with Walt Martin, and 'Loved So Little', that I wrote with Mike Brewer. I sent him those two originals and he right away was like 'do you have any more?', so I just started sharing with him all the little songs (I had done) and then I wrote a bunch of new ones. In the studio we recorded 19 songs, but I didn't want the record to be too long so decided to put out just the 10 originals which fitted best together. And that's a solo album." Matt Berninger, The Pitchfork Review, 18 September 2020
What does it sound like?
In all honesty Serpentine Prison isn't a massive departure from his day job with Cincinnati melancholic Indie-Folk giants The National. It's 41 minutes of heartfelt songwriting, combined with layers of pianos, acoustics guitars and Americana, mastering a particular graceful and pensive vibe throughout.
The album opens with the brilliant 'My Eyes My T-Shirts', the introducing vocals of "My eyes are T-shirts, they're so easy to read / I wear 'em for you but they're all about me" sounding beautifully poetic, comforting you from the off that Matt has set the bar pretty high. The slide guitar sound which finishes the song provides an atmosphere and a glimpse into Americana that would soon continue into the rest of the record.
The most powerful track is arguably 'Distant Axis', a song with heart and heartbreak in abundance, the layers of pianos and acoustic guitars complimenting Matt's emotional tones. It's a song we can all relate to, that feeling of distance from someone you thought you'd be forever close to. The closing repeated lines of "I feel like I'm as far as I can get from you" really sticks with you as the song fades out.
The above mentioned 'Oh Dearie' was a personal favourite for it's delicate sound, Matt's voice at it's deepest and roughest in a song about anxiety and depression ("oh dearie / don't get near me / paralysis has me"). A gorgeous melancholic track.
'All For Nothing' proves there's beauty in bleakness, the stunning piano one of the many highlights on the album and it's amongst the most emotional on the album. 'Serpentine Prison', the lead single released back in May, completes the album on a less depressing tone. A simply sublime ending to a 41 minutes record which, perhaps surprisingly, flies in.
What's the verdict then?
If truth be told, I was instantly hooked on this record. Ok, there were a couple of tracks which didn't quite hit the mark for me, namely the duet 'Silver Springs' with Gail Ann Dorsey - a bit too middle of the road - and 'Take Me Out of Town' which struggles to evoke the same emotion of other tracks. But those tracks are perhaps saved by the fact that album highlight 'Oh Dearie' runs either side of them and it's easy not to dwell his is misfirings.
Otherwise, it's a wonderfully emotive record from start to finish, Matt's baritone voice shining through alongside the beautiful Indie Folk production. He's really in his element here but for me, already a big fan of his work with The National, it really wasn't that difficult to enjoy.
A few strong contenders, but the songs I was feeling the most were 'Distant Axis', 'Oh Dearie' and 'All For Nothing'.
Best listened to when...
Feeling sleepy or a bit down. Despite being wrapped in melancholia, it'll raise your spirits.