Outside of The National, Matt Berninger has taken only tentative steps without his trusted bandmates in the past. He’s duetted with Phoebe Bridgers and most notably teamed up with Brent Knopf (Ramona Falls) to release Return To The Moon in 2015 as EL VY, but never before has he gone it alone, despite now being just a whisker away from hitting the half century age milestone. Serpentine Prison, his debut solo album, has a roll-call of contributors as long as your arm, so it could technically be argued that it’s not that much of a solo effort, having more people’s fingerprints – including those of Scott Devendorf – over it than any of The National’s eight albums.
Coming from a place inside his own head as opposed from trying to get into the heads of others, the songs on Serpentine Prison are, therefore, a lot more personal than much of his recent past, Berninger explaining that “I was ready to dig back into my own garbage”. The result is something that should please fans of The National as it’s not exactly a million miles away from his main band’s output, although there is a more laid back feel to the collection as less of the limelight is shared with others, leaving Berninger free of the multi-talented facets normally on show from his fellow National members that add so much with their respective layers.
The title track, also the album closer, was one of the first to be penned. Named after a “twisting sewer pipe that drains into the ocean”, Berninger talks of “total frustration” and that he needs “a vacation from intoxication” amid spine-tingling Hammond organ chords, a trait successfully repeated on the country-tinged Collar Of Your Shirt where a cello also puts in an appearance. More gorgeous Hammond adorns One More Second during a tale of personal confusion centred around relationship observations, lyrics of “the last time we were together”, “baby don’t lie to me” and “give me a little more time” describing internal emotional turmoil being experienced at some point. The excellent Take Me Out Of Town boasts yet more Hammond, but this time it’s more of an afterthought, with a sublime piano hook leading the way. Brass layers appear too, it all adding up to an excellent, slow-burning gem that enjoys minimalistic passages and beautiful melodies as Berninger claims, ironically in contrast to his solo venture, “everyone’s in this alone”.
Opener My Eyes Are T-Shirts tells of being easily read during more relationship woes, pleas of “come back baby, make me feel better” appearing from the subtle, percussion-minimal background whilst Love So Little bears some smart brass and strings touches for some more chilled out action. Acoustic guitars lead out both Oh Dearie and the emotionally charged cracker Distant Axis, where frailty creeps into that famous baritone vocal delivery, before slide guitar and piano add further layers, lyrics of “I’m as far as I can get from you” once more pointing to difficult relationship issues.
Serpentine Prison is undoubtedly calmer than The National for longer periods, not that the group he shares with the Dessner and Devendorf brothers always takes a meatier approach. There is, though, less fire, less intensity and less power on show. Its more subtle, softer textures are welcome and, as we already know, always complement Berninger’s deep vocal perfectly whenever the band head down that rabbit hole, something that producer Booker T Jones would have been very aware of. For a first solo work, Serpentine Prison is an excellent sidestep from Berninger’s vitally important and highly respected day job.