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.