Album review: Matt Berninger – Serpentine Prison

Matt Berninger releases his album Serpentine Prison

Matt Berninger releases his album Serpentine Prison - Credit: Archant

The National frontman’s alchemical swirls of dark lyricism and classic country soul make for an intoxicating debut.

Matt Berninger releases his album Serpentine Prison

Matt Berninger releases his album Serpentine Prison - Credit: Archant

Many will recognise Berninger as frontman of Grammy-winning alt-rock glum lords The National, his unassuming baritone giving artistic form to many an internal monologue over the years.

After two back-to-back albums with the band, Berninger was in need of a break but, rather than taking one, he ended up writing about needing one instead, working up rough sketches of songs that were never intended as the basis of his first solo record.

Having grown up listening to Willie Nelson’s Stardust, Berninger actually wanted his first record to emulate it, and he recruited its producer, the famed Memphis multi-instrumentalist Booker T Jones, to work on his own selection of covers. But when they settled down to work in an LA studio, Jones’ interest was instead piqued by Berninger’s original demos. He got his way, and Serpentine Prison breathes life into the new songs.

Berninger emotes and ruminates in his trademark obtuse lyricism and dark wit, mining the soul for coal-black nuggets on depression, vulnerability, repression, escape, human connections and emotional turmoil.

The hand-wringing might sound heavy-going, but it’s leavened by enigmatic country and soul ensembles performed by masters of their craft – and Jones ensures it retains that intangible, in-the-room crackle and fizz.

Replacing The National’s more recent output of dense arrangements, layered with electronics and effects, Serpentine Prison breathes more freely and expressively.

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Recent single One More Second, for example, trundles along on a charmingly rickety-feeling arrangement of wobbly organ, locomotive, click-clack percussion and sparing finger-picked acoustic guitar, Berninger’s vocal shadowed by a ghostly, barely-there female foil. His earnest, heart-on-sleeve plea – written as an answer to Dolly Parton’s 1974 classic I Will Always Love You – is disarmingly raw.

Sorrowful violin (courtesy of Andrew Bird), pools of organ and wisps of harmonica form the backbone of Loved So Little, a beautifully doleful five-minute sigh, spiked with a loose-limbed percussion ensemble including drums, maracas and tambourine.

But it’s Silver Springs’ poise – framed by a dainty, finger-picked melody with aching reverb, gently glowing horns, piano and mouth organ – that makes for the record’s highpoint.

Together they underpin a breathy duet with Bowie’s lauded former bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, pointed lyrics swirling around escape, exhaustion and yearning.

Berninger goes full Mark Lanegan for Oh Dearie, his voice and mental outlook lurking several fathoms below its two bright, finger-picked acoustic guitars and bold piano, lamenting: “How do people do it? I cannot see through it. Bootstraps are in the basement. Guess I’ll use my laces.”

And it’s this dynamic relationship between expressive musicianship and Berninger’s soul-baring – one minute together in melancholic cahoots, the next as the sunshine breaking through his downcast lyrics – that will keep bringing you back for another listen.

4/5 stars