PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Photo: Chantal Anderson / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.

Serpentine Prison
Matt Berninger


16 October 2020

As a musician, Matt Berninger achieved something more difficult than it appears: he's created a distinct musical identity for himself while at the same time shaping that identity to the style of the band that's made him famous. In rock groups like the National, the lead singer is the immediate focus of attention – which is why in reviews like this one, names like "frontperson" are commonly used to describe them. And sure, in press photography and onstage the vocalist typically appears at the center of focus – Berninger does, for instance, in this year's press photo for the 10th anniversary reissue of the National's breakthrough LP High Violet – but at their most interesting, bands operate democratically, or at least not in a total top-down fashion. What gives a group its identity is the agglomeration of multiple artistic perspectives, synthesized into a unitary sound.

With the National, Berninger has suited his mumbly baritone to his bandmates' subtly intricate rock without sacrificing his legibility as an individual within the collective. He dresses sharply, seemingly at all times, which gives him a professorial vibe on stage in tandem with his loquaciousness. His lyrics consist of equal parts clever quotables ("Make up something to believe in your heart of hearts / So you have something to wear on your sleeve of sleeves" on "Mistaken for Strangers") to out-of-left-field imagery ("It's a common fetish for a doting man / To ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand" on "Karen"). He can affect a low rumble as he does on "Demons", or shout like a screamo vocalist on tracks like "Mr. November", still a raucous closer for the National at concerts 15 years after its release. The National have remained a legacy indie act because of each of their members' brilliance, but Berninger's remained a distinct entity throughout the group's success. Now, with his first solo outing, Serpentine Prison, he gets the chance to take those traits and put them to use on an album in which he alone gets the reins.

Solo albums by artists who have already made a name for themselves with a successful band are, at a fundamental level, about control. Even in the best artistic partnerships, there exist restrictions on what each band member can do. A solo album offers an artist the chance not to put their artistic vision in conversation with others, even those with whom they've made great art before. For Berninger, 2020 represents a natural moment for him to try his hand at a solo record, as Serpentine Prison comes on the heels of what is as of now the most collaborative National project, 2019's I Am Easy to Find. That album, an experimental and lengthy affair, featured numerous guest vocalists and a gaggle of orchestral musicians and was itself composed after the accompanying Mike Mills-directed film of the same name.

It's somewhat unsurprising, therefore, given his work on I Am Easy to Find, that Berninger strips things down on Serpentine Prison. Many of these tunes feel like singer-songwriter tunes that he could pull off with just his voice and a guitar or piano, such as "All for Nothing" and "Distant Axis". One of the stranger aspects of this record is how the latter song almost directly quotes The Decemberists' "The Crane Wife 3" in its chord progression. The instrumental arrangements here trend toward the light and jazzy, with frequent brush drumsticks on the percussion and gentle fingerpicking on the guitar.

Some well-placed horn and string sections on, respectively, "Take Me Out of Town" and "Collar of Your Shirt" give Serpentine Prison some uplift as it stretches into its back half, but on the whole, these are spare, unfussy songs where Berninger's voice is front and center. Contrasted with some of the textural soundscapes designed by Aaron and Bryce Dessner on I Am Easy to Find and its predecessor, 2017's Sleep Well Beast, Berninger's songwriting eschews exploratory instrumental sections and favors organic instrumentation.

The result of Berninger's approach on Serpentine Beast, which gets a big help in the production department from Booker T. Jones, is a pleasant and well-crafted singer-songwriter album that, much like the National's output, gets a little lost in midtempo moodiness. The peaks of energy here come early, on the group vocal at the end of "Distant Axis" and in the catchy chorus of "One More Second". For the most part, Berninger sounds here like he looks like a stage performer: hunched over the microphone, sonorously grumbling his wry insights about life. In certain moments he's as brilliant as he's ever been, particularly on the Great American Songbook jazz of "Silver Springs", a lovely duet with Gail Ann Dorsey, and the show-stopping ballad "All for Nothing", whose horn-led bridge provides some verve in the album's closing tracks. Yet elsewhere, the music feels more somnambulate than introspective, as in "Oh Dearie".

Lyrically, too, Berninger hits some highs and lows. Opening track "My Eyes are T-Shirts" commences with a simile that feels a bit like a first draft: "My eyes are t-shirts, they're so easy to read / I wear 'em for you, but they're all about me." But then Berninger gets back to turning out some evocatively vague poetry, like this stanza about a doomed relationship from "Collar of Your Shirt": "Your sparkle's all I will inherit / My love is in an outward spiral / I'll tell you everything whenever you want / In the vanishing geometry of fire." However, Serpentine Prison's biggest lyrical feat is how the lyrics work alongside the choruses and melodies, rather than over them. Because of his penchant for longer lines, Berninger in the National frequently has to sing into the music – think of the wordy chorus to "Mistaken for Strangers", which fits the chugging rock 'n' roll of the song but has to be stretched by Berninger's delivery to make it work.

The choruses to Serpentine Prison more often than not rely on repeated phrases shaped artfully to accompany the music. One can hear that on "Loved So Little" (It's only god or the devil when you're in it / And I'm always getting caught in the middle / It's so hard to be loved so little") and "Distant Axis" ("I feel like I'm as far I can get from you"). If the music feels overly restrained at times, Berninger shows real growth in lyrical restraint, opting for tighter, concise refrains where he could have perhaps tossed in a few more words and gotten away with it.

In the end, Serpentine Prison gives us a vision of Berninger quite like the painting, which adorns its cover. We see only a part of him, just as this record presents only a first flash of what he has to offer as a solo artist. He can play the traditional singer-songwriter or the jazz crooner – perhaps he still has yet to find other hats he can wear. Serpentine Prison may not be perfect, but it allows us a new look at a very familiar voice, and for Berninger to achieve that two decades into his career is no small feat.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.