The National’s Matt Berninger Sets Aside His Indie Cred on Solo Debut ‘Serpentine Prison’
Published Oct 15, 2020
A year after the National released their eighth album, I Am Easy to Find, two of their members are back in the spotlight again with high-profile side-projects. While guitarist Aaron Dessner gained widespread attention and acclaim for producing and co-writing much of Taylor Swift‘s folklore, singer Matt Berninger has struck out on his own for an admirably made debut solo album.
Serpentine Prison draws on previously untapped influences and songwriting styles without venturing all too far from what Berninger has done for years. Produced by the legendary Booker T. Jones, the album takes a more classic approach than the modern indie rock of the National. It evokes the timeless feel of the family’s old record collection: fond memories of listening to anything from Willie Nelson to the Gershwins to Marvin Gaye to Olivia Newton-John to the Smiths. But Serpentine Prison doesn’t feel dated; it’s just a record that already feels worn-in.
You might hear the harmonically rich finger-picked acoustic guitar on “Oh Dearie” and think of Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind.” The uptempo yet subdued “One More Second” bears the teensiest resemblance to Howie Day’s “Collide,” spruced up with the rhythmic, sexed-up melodies and soulful Hammond organ you’d find in a Motown tune. “Loved So Little” sounds like Nick Cave after a night of bourbon and cigarettes at an Old West saloon. Meanwhile, the piano waltz of “Take Me Out to Town” sounds like it could’ve made it onto Trouble Will Find Me.
“Distant Axis” is an excellent single (co-written by the Walkmen‘s Walter Martin) that brings to mind Phoebe Bridgers, with whom Berninger collaborated for the Between Two Ferns movie. “Collar of Your Shirt” is a lovely ballad with a marvellously warm and listenable arrangement. The swinging soul of “Silver Springs” benefits greatly from Jones’ musical prowess, as well as the smooth, satiny vocals of Gail Ann Dorsey. Berninger’s voice is as deep and rich as always, but his lyrics are more straightforward and easier to interpret than the melancholy abstraction he brings to the National; it’s yet another reason for Serpentine Prison to find broader appeal.
With this solo venture, Berninger’s most likely audience — outside of the National fans, of course — might be among the type of mass audience that has previously gobbled up adult-contemporary products like Coldplay, the Fray, Matchbox Twenty and Vance Joy. Dessner brought his indie cred into the modern pop mainstream with Swift; Berninger decided to set his aside. For a solo debut, Serpentine Prison seems like a natural first step and a safe bet for both the artist’s individual ambitions and the comfort of existing fans.