by Jowan Mead
Serpentine Prison’s artwork reflects itself. An oil-brushed version of Matt Berninger sits in quiet repose within a blue-grey room – a vision that conveys everything you need to know about this record before the first iota of its opening track sneaks in.
This graphic isolation isn’t unfounded. While The National frontman has struck out on his own in the past, mussing with new wave under 2015’s EL VY project and collaborating with Phoebe Bridgers for standalone hit, Walking on a String, last year, Serpentine Prison is his first real solo outing. Production from soul legend Booker T. Jones puts Berninger’s unmatchable voice at lonely front and centre – embellished by traditionalistic country arrangements.
In keeping with the cover’s reclined portrait, Berninger’s standalone songs are far more relaxed and lackadaisical than most of The National’s output. From opener, My Eyes Are T-Shirts, to namesake closer, Serpentine Prison, there’s very few true crescendo moments, and nothing as bombastic as Mr. November or Mistaken for Strangers. It’s still familiar ground for the 21st century crooner, though – Berninger wears his softer register like a glove, and Booker T.’s signature Hammond organ tones accompany to great effect. Serpentine Prison and One More Second echo early 2000’s easy-listening in the vein of Cat Power and Aimee Mann, with Booker T.’s arrangements uplifting already solid vocal hooks to grandiose moments. One More Second in particular is the record’s one true highlight, defying the other tracks’ gentle convention through a pleasantly driving groove and atonal piano trill in its penultimate moments.
At times, Serpentine Prison seems to exercise a little too much restraint. Latter-half songs like Take Me Out Of Town and Collar Of My Shirt have some beautifully tender vocal and orchestral moments, but don’t have the percussive dynamism to match. Lyrics follow suit: at times, Berninger seems a little tense, forgoing his usual wry wit and evocative-if-opaque imagery for basic statements of numbness and nihilism in Oh Dearie and All For Nothing. There’s still some fun to be had, though. Serpentine Prison rambles through spontaneous actions and emotions to great effect, a vented list that includes a world-weary couplet of ‘nationalism’ and ‘deterioration’ that gets more relevant with each passing day. Opener, My Eyes Are T-Shirts is loaded with Berninger’s typical metaphors, reaching beyond the title comparison to describe his tongue as a ‘bible in the drawer of a desk’ untouched.
This collection of recordings emerged from sessions with Booker T. that were originally intended for a covers album – a future release that’ll touch on classics by The Velvet Underground and The Beatles amongst others. Some of the tracks on Serpentine Prison share the timeless feel of those originals – One More Second could have come out 20 years ago, and carefully placed percussion and strings in Loved So Little evoke the best songs by Nick Cave or The Doors. Despite this, Serpentine Prison is an ultimately tentative debut, but Berninger’s golden and ever-earthy voice lifts it a cut above conventional singer-songwriter fare. It’s undoubtedly a warm listen that sets a clear direction in passionate grayscale for Berninger’s output outside of The National.
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