Matt Berninger: Singer, songwriter, Serpentine Prisoner

Serpentine Prison is the debut album of singer-songwriter Matt Berninger. Released in mid-October 2020, it was produced by Booker T. Jones and features a host of talented contributors.

If you’re already thinking Hey, surely this guy knows Matt Berninger is the lead singer of The National, I do. But for this review, I’m seeing it for what it is, a solo project, and setting aside the countless great records Berninger has released with the band. And you should too.

In doing so, you and I free ourselves of the connotations that the album has to be a certain way because of the artist’s background. That’s a freedom I’d like you to join me in enjoying for the next 5 minutes, as I want you (yes you), to forget everything you know of Matt Berninger’s role in The National.

Just Matt, and all these amazing artists…

In a prerelease interview with The Washington Post, Berninger said, “I didn’t want an indie rock record, whatever that is. I didn’t want any kind of record. I just wanted a Matt Berninger record, you know?”

We do know Matt, we do.

While this is a Matt Berninger album, producer Booker T. Jones’ influence is evident, as are the talents of contributing musicians (Scott Devendorf, Gail Ann Dorsey, Brent Knopf to name a few).

“Distant Axis”, one of the records standout tracks, features Walkmen’s Walter Martin, while “Silver Springs”, a duet about shedding skin and becoming something new, features the much-travelled Gail Ann Dorsey.

For the most part however, it is Berninger out on his own dealing with the personal and universal, and it is perhaps in the lyrics that we discover the strength of the album. His take on the state of the world and the people in it; “Cold cynicism and blind nihilism” and his own take on love and want in “My Eyes Are T-Shirts”:

When I see you something sad goes missing
I stop crying, lay down and listen
I hear your voice and my heart falls together
Please come back, baby, make me feel better

Finger on a feeling

If you read my embarrassingly infrequent reviews, you’ll have noticed I’m not one to go too much into the negative aspects of songs or albums.

I try to look for the something good in each piece of music, even in situations when (shudders) Imagine Dragons come on the radio and there are no cliffs nearby.

However, nothing’s perfect.

With Serpentine Prison, what might bug you after 42 minutes is that the album just doesn’t seem to take flight, but instead, floats leisurely. As thoughtful and challenging as the lyrics of the master of melancholy’s can be, there aren’t too many bumps in the road from “My Eyes Are T-Shirts” to “Serpentine Prison”.

This is more of a feeling than anything else. Of course, you may hear your own Serpentine Prison, but I’m sure during one of your listens, you felt it could have offered more. What that “more” is, is a little tricky to put your finger on.

Parting thought

Serpentine Prison is a lovely album and it has its place in your collection. Those things are certain. Matt Berninger, with his brilliant baritone voice leading his band of talented contributors, has much more music left in him and Serpentine Prison should act as the first of many solo records, an introduction of sorts.

Captivating in parts, it may also be where the problem lies, that creating something beautiful comes too easily to Berninger. But, like all solid foundations, it’s here to be built on, and therein lies room for growth.

G.M

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Photo credit: Pitchfork

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