Serpentine Prison by Matt Berninger album review by Adam Williams for Northern Transmissions


Serpentine Prison

Matt Berninger

Just a week after recording The National’s eighth studio record ‘I Am Easy to Find’ back in December 2018, Matt Berninger, the Cincinnati band’s vocalist, set out writing material for his first ever solo LP. After 20+ years in The National, releasing exquisite album, after exquisite album, you’d have thought the singer would’ve taken a well-earned break knowing that ‘I Am Easy to Find’ was in the bag. Clearly not. The first track to be penned from the writing sessions would become the title of Berninger’s primary outing under his own moniker ‘Serpentine Prison’. Putting it in his own words, Matt decided it was time to turn his lyrical exploration inwards “for a long time, I had been writing songs for movies and musicals and other projects where I needed to get inside someone else’s head and convey another person’s feelings. I liked doing that, but I was ready to dig back into my own garbage and this was the first thing that came out.”

Garbage this album is not. It’s a delicately put together body of work that shimmers with a raw intimacy, something that’s buoyed by flashes of country, jazz and surf rock. The LP itself trades in nuances and a ‘less is more’ approach, which is a dichotomy to the record’s inception given it was quite the collaborative affair. Berninger called in the duties of legendary producer Booker T. Jones while a wide array of musicians contributed to the album’s brittle bones.

Both sonically and lyrically, ‘Serpentine Prison’ bristles with an emotional fragility. ‘I Am Easy to Find’ was an album mostly recorded in hotel rooms with children sleeping in close proximity, and Berninger’s debut offering has the same hushed tone about. Guitars gently shimmer, drums are either brushed or delicately tapped, while the faintest throb of bass acts like a distant heartbeat. The use of brass and strings provokes a cinematic proclivity, but their deployment is prudent throughout the duration of the album. The same can be said for the lonesome trill of harmonica; a layer of texture that creates a swoon of lonesome longing. And of course, there’s The National man’s unmistakeable vocal delivery; a voice that’s both smooth and coarse, like a salted caramel truffle.

Soul searching, themes of love lost and found, and dejection litter the record; it’s this exposed nerve vulnerability that gives ‘Serpentine Prison’ its heart-warming appeal. ‘Oh Dearie’ finds Berninger at a low ebb, as his roughly hewn vocals state “I am near the bottom/name the blues/I got them” while a pretty acoustic guitar flickers with a fragile intricacy. On ‘One More Secured’, a clip-clopping faint beat frames more delicate guitar work, before the song unfurls to the sound of trembling piano and an organ hue. Matt can be heard recounting the tales of a relationship that’s veering close to the rocks “the way we talked last it night/it felt like a different kind of fight”, as the singer pleads “give me one more second to dry my eyes/give me one more minute to realise” knowing full well he’s on borrowed time. The record opener ‘My Eyes Are T-Shirts’ follows a similar path, as we find Berninger’s gravelled vocals being elevated by tiny jazzy tones, as he states, “I hear your voice and my heart falls together/please come back baby/make me feel better”. ‘All for Nothing’ is where the album straddles the lines between dimly lit night-time vulnerability to grandiose, as a lonesome piano tone and moaning strings gradually swell to something genuinely tear-jerking, certainly as a heady rush of brass takes your breath away.

Stark, weirdly comforting, bruised and beautiful, ‘Serpentine Prison’ is like being given access to Berninger’s private diary where you’re allowed to view his most intimate thoughts and secrets.

pre-order Serpentine Prison HERE

Note: The release date has been pushed back to October 16th


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