‘Serpentine Prison’: Matt Berninger Makes an Elegantly Emotional Solo Debut

As frontman of the National, Matt Berninger has established himself as a 21st-century indie rock poster child. From the band’s 2001 self-titled debut through their era-defining 2010 album, “High Violet,” and on to their latest multidisciplinary release, last year’s “I Am Easy to Find,” the National have garnered critical acclaim and widespread appeal. Berninger has collaborated with Brent Knopf of Ramona Falls and Menomena for side project El Vy’s “Return to the Moon,” but it has taken until now, however, for him to go solo, and he comes through with flying colors on his debut record, “Serpentine Prison.” On production duties is Booker T. Jones, the leading man behind Booker T. and the M.G.’s. Anyone who has been alive for at least a decade has at least heard the M.G.’s “Green Onions,” in a movie scene, and the longevity of that song alone makes this collaboration a monumental one. One feature of Berninger’s music that has made him stand out over the years is a sensibility informed by decades of music, distilled into an easily digestible, but intriguing format. This makes for a natural pairing, and the album finds Berninger streamlining his craft into songs that are more intimate and elemental than anything yet. 

The album opens with the strikingly titled “My Eyes Are T-shirts.” Berninger explains the title in the first few lines, explaining, “They’re so easy to read / I wear them for you, but they’re all about me.” At once, he raises issues of transparency, vulnerability, and authenticity, all reasonable concerns on a solo debut. Berninger sings in an unaffected drawl, with a rasp in his voice that goes past the already uncalculated stylings of his music with the National. The song trudges along accordingly, setting the mood for the album at large. On single “Distant Axis,” Berninger settles further into the emergent feeling, fleshing out a template originally introduced by Walter Martin, frontman of indie outfit the Walkmen, with whom the National once toured. It appears that the experience of touring, and relating to people with whom one would usually not expect to necessarily relate, triggered a musical realization of lingering ideas, as Berninger centers on the elusive space between an eternal connection and a fleeting companionship. The title could hardly better encapsulate the crux of the situation, and when Berninger sings, “I feel like I’m as far as I can get from you,” he expresses it with an emotion that rings true.   

“One More Second” has an illuminating backstory. Berninger took influence from Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” and set out to write a song with the same directness but a different angle. Berninger has described it as “sort of the other side of the conversation,” which can be a bit puzzling, as lines like “Don’t be cruel, if you’re leaving me, just do it right here” might seem a rather odd response to the open declaration of love central to the aforementioned song. Perhaps it was a prequel. At any rate, it does capture the type of charged mentality and posturing that typically coincides and clashes with its counterpart in a way that makes for at least artistic inspiration, and at most, a harmonious relationship.  

Such frictions expectedly give way to internal musings, and Beringer follows the course with “Loved So Little,” singing, “It’s only god or the devil where you’re running / And I’m always getting caught in the middle.” One can hear him calmly biting his tongue for composure, as the musical stylings are subdued in a way that comes across as a deliberate gesture of modesty. A segment midway introduces evocative strings, but cuts them short in due time, leaving Berninger to make his case over a suitably austere backdrop.  At any rate, Berninger effortlessly reaches an emotional peak on the track, muttering the refrain alongside a harmonica in a way that has the same haunting quality of Modest Mouse on their most charged recordings. 

The record drifts into the sonic space of  “OK Computer,” the portion of that definitive Radiohead Record with “Let Down” and “No Surprises,” on “Silver Springs,” and it strikes like a sound long coming, with Berninger’s particular strain of gloom achieving an overdue realization. Berninger is joined by Gail Ann Dorsey, best known for her residency with David Bowie’s band, and she mirrors him impeccably, at once offering a fresh voice and the same countenance. “Oh Dearie” finds Berninger especially up front and intimate, over intricate but elemental acoustic guitars that bring out the subdued urgency in his voice, as he hovers over the microphone with a rasp, echoed by the droning horns that make their way in after the powerfully helpless chorus. 

Subtly mobilizing hooks, plaintive melodies, and unfiltered emotion are quite obviously more deeply rooted than all the fluff and filigree that comes afterwards, and Berninger focuses on these elements on songs like “Take Me Out of Town.” When organs enter during the chorus, and the recurrent horns blend in, the song speaks to timeless sensibilities. There’s a touch of country in the guitar tone that reveals itself between verses, and Berninger’s lyrics are a natural extension of the title, delivered as if flailing arms while standing dead still.    

There are vague echoes of Nick Drake in the wide eyed, sluggish, organic stylings of “Collar of Your Shirt.” Granted, the refrain of “fall into the collar of your shirt” seems a bit like laughably strained poetry, but on the other hand, one can sense the instinct in the music, which likely came in a surge of inspiration inseparable from a tawdry beginning line. The music begins to glide with a vaguely loungey feel upon the piano-heavy “All For Nothing,” with Berninger’s mellow musings taking on the shape of a wistful, lone crooner’s lamentations. The title track neatly closes the album, with Berninger sounding like he has brooded for a while, and is starting to wear, in a way that only benefits the music, as the track trudges along and the horns sluggishly but grandly make their concluding gestures. Lyrics like “Total submission / I’ve seen a vision… Nationalism / Another moon mission” can sound almost as if Berninger is freestyling. On the other hand, it all sounds like a “Serpentine Prison,” with lyrics that dash between bits of neurosis stemming from fatherhood and everyday life, in a way that makes for a snapshot of a psyche, documented with precise musical accuracy.  

Berninger took the title of the album from “a twisting pipe that drains into the ocean near LAX,” with “a cage on the pipe to keep people from climbing out to sea.” The placement of the title track as an epilogue of the album is well fitting, considering the contained emotion that Berninger displays throughout the recording. “Serpentine Prison” is an album to turn your head, gaze upward, grit your teeth, sigh, and take a step forward. The instrumentation, particularly the horns, over the minimal, standard rock band backdrop, has a sort of quaint appeal that streamlines Berninger’s musings and grounds them in a tradition, surely informed by Booker T. Jones. The album is a set of elegant ruminations set to resonant tunes, making for a successful solo foray. 

Serpentine Prison” releases Oct. 16 on Apple Music.