Album Review: Matt Berninger - Serpentine Prison
I wait four days before I sit down with Serpentine Prison, mostly because I am disappointed in the slightly botched roll out for the special edition vinyl I had pre-ordered. These are my first world problems, and this is, really, the kind of thing that shouldn’t prevent me from listening to an album that I was genuinely and legitimately looking forward to for months—but it is.
I receive an email from Matt Berninger’s label roughly two days before the album’s release, alerting me to the fact that the edition of the album I ordered, the double LP, pressed onto vinyl of color, featuring an additional six tracks, and alternate cover art, is being delayed a week because of dat rona—but that I will still receive an email containing a link to download my digital copy of the album on the day of release, Friday, October 16th.
Because the way I want to hear the solo debut from one of my favorite living voices in contemporary popular music for the first time is from a zip file on my desktop, and certainly not from my record player—and specifically with this instance, the enormous booklet of liner notes in hand.
I don’t even ‘sit down’ with Serpentine Prison so much as I just listen to it while I am sitting—sitting in the car, merging onto the highway, after dropping my cat, Ted, off at the vet. Taking Ted to the vet during the pandemic has been a nightmare because we can’t schedule actual appointments for him—I just drop him off and they will eventually look at him, or treat him, and then they call me when he is ready to be picked up, and I drive back to fetch him.
It’s hard not being there for an actual appointment—producing a little more anxiety than if I were in an examination room with him; instead, I call the clinic from the parking lot, and give him reassuring pats on the head before a tech comes out and pulls his carrier out of the backseat, taking him into the clinic.
And then I am alone in the car—left to my intrusive thoughts, and the half hour drive back home.
Ted has “severe chronic ulcerative plasmacytic separative dermatitis with epidermal hyperplasia,” and it’s easier just to say that he has an autoimmune disorder that affects his skin. But, because his immune system is already compromised, we often worry that there is something else going on with him. On this day in question, the day I am finally ‘sitting down with’ Matt Berninger’s Serpentine Prison, I am dropping him off at the vet because we worry that he has a U.T.I. or some kind of urinary-related blockage, and because sometimes he drinks water too quickly then coughs some of it up right away—which is a new thing that he has started doing recently.
Eventually, on the drive back home from our veterinarian’s office, I hit the three song sequence of “Silver Springs,” “Oh Dearie,” and “Take Me Out of Town,” and what I think to myself is that I wish somebody would have warned me—like, that someone would have just maybe given me a quick heads up about how seen and attacked I would have felt by these songs, and the fact that Berninger places them right in a row makes it extra difficult, for me, personally, to listen to.
But what was I expecting, you know?
Why wouldn’t the debut solo LP from Matt Berninger, one of the most iconic vocalists and lyricists of the last 20 years, be brimming with emotionally charged material that would leave me borderline devastated as I careen down the highway, already a mess before I had even pressed ‘play’?
The solo album.
The thing about the solo album is that heading into it, I often wonder just how different it may or may not be from the work that person does with the band they are a part of.
EG: Thom Yorke’s solo output, of which there are three proper solo albums, plus his side project, Atoms For Peace. All of those are both different, and not different, from Radiohead, if that makes sense.
There are moments that are very glitchy and skittering, deeply rooted in the electronic music Yorke immerses himself in outside of his day job—2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes being the most removed from the sound of his band, even at their most experimental and electronically influenced.
But because Yorke, like Berninger, is such an iconic voice in contemporary popular music, you cannot help but associate it with what he does within Radiohead.
Both different, and not different.
When Matt Berninger, singer and principal songwriter for The National, announced that he was releasing a solo album—the 10 song Serpentine Prison—I had to wonder just how far removed from his work with The National would it be.
The answer is not that far, but far enough, if that makes sense. It is both different, and not different.
Produced and arranged by Booker T. Jones (yes, that Booker T.), Serpentine Prison is, overall, a much more hushed, reserved, and personal affair in comparison to what Berninger does with The National. His baritone still booms through each song, and his idiosyncratic self-effacing lyrics are still very present, but with the dense and complicated pomp and bombast of his band missing, the material here arrives seeming much more intimate—an urgent, intensely personal secret needing to be shared.
I was having a conversation1 with my internet friend, the singer/songwriter Joe Goodkin, about The National, and about Berninger as a lyricist and vocalist, and within the conversation I asked if he had listened to any of the early singles off of Serpentine Prison. He, at that time, had not, but he was also a little perplexed by the notion of Berninger making an entire album with Booker T. Jones.
What is a 50 year old sad, white man—the lead singer for The National—doing working with a 75 year old R&B, soul, and blues legend?
I am uncertain how the two came into each other’s orbit originally—though, a little less than a decade ago, Berninger contributed vocals on the Booker T. song “Representing Memphis,” which also featured a turn from the late Sharon Jones. In 2011, Berninger, as a singer, was slowly finding confidence in his voice—there is a huge leap between his performance on The National’s breakthrough 2007 Boxer and its follow up, 2010’s High Violet, and there’s even more growth and poise on Trouble Will Find Me.
Serpentine Prison, allegedly, began as a covers album—with Berninger reaching out to Jones about recording a collection of covers, similar to Stardust, the Jones-helmed Willie Nelson record of standards from 1978. Jones then encouraged Berninger, instead to further develop demos he had been working on outside of The National. The aforementioned covers of standards are nowhere to be found on Serpentine Prison, and the only covers that appear are featured on the ‘deluxe edition’ of the album—including The Velvet Underground’s “European Sun,” the slow burning “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” penned in the 1960s by John Loudermilk and then recorded as a country tune and a doop-wop song, “In Spite of Me,” originally by the cult favorite Morphine, and Eddie Floyd’s “Big Bird.”
Sometimes I find that I fall into a trap of ‘reviewing the review,’ meaning I spend a part of a piece—sometimes it is a footnote, sometimes it’s part of the actual review proper—more or less complaining about the things I disagree with in another review written about the album in question; usually, it’s the Pitchfork review2 that I take the most issue with.
I know that everybody is entitled to their own opinion, and you can take or leave ‘music journalism,’ and that an album review isn’t even really ‘journalism3,’ but with the case of Serpentine Prison, I saw it received a very low, unimpressive score, but didn’t come back to the actual content to the review until I had listened to the album myself. Writer Hannah Jocelyn4, calls the music ‘unfussy,’ and states Berninger’s lyrics vocals are ‘nondescript.’ “These songs don’t have the nerve of Berninger’s main project,” she writes, which I mean, that’s not exactly the point of Serpentine Prison, but it’s also kind of the point. It is not a National record, and for me, there is, in fact, a lot of nerve, but it isn’t presented the same way.
Serpentine Prison, musically, is very subdued in comparison to the explosive, cathartic nature of The National. And rather than Berninger’s lyrics competing within the swirling bombast of a National song, or if not competing, working to swim their way above the cacophony, here, they are presented very plainly. It is a relaxed album, but the themes within the songs are not relaxing. And yes, gone is the dynamic of ‘tension and release’ that is so present on albums like High Violet or Sleep Well Beast, but that give and take is not missing completely here. There is still a small sense of tension created when it’s needed—the borderline ominous “Silver Springs” stands out immediately as the best example of this.
The themes present throughout Serpentine Prison are similar to the themes that often find themselves in National songs, though here, because it is a solo album, they seem to land a little harder, or at least arrive as much more personal.
Rarely is an album, from beginning to end, perfect. Even my favorite albums of all time still have songs that, in the context of the record, are fine, sure, but they are also the songs I might feel compelled to skip over, or pay less attention to. I am by no means implying that Serpentine Prison is a ‘perfect’ album from start to finish, but spread across 10 songs (on the standard edition of the album), there are really only two or three tracks that are not ‘bad’ per se, and again, within the context of the album as a whole, are just fine—but they are not as well executed in comparison to the others.
What Berninger, Jones, and their assemblage of players do on this album, and do extraordinarily well, is that they set a tone, or an atmosphere, and they never really let up from it. The anxiety Berninger often works into his songs with The National (both on stage, and in the lyrics) is present, though it’s not as visceral; and musically, Serpentine Prison is more relaxed in comparison to the vast, sweeping arrangements of latter day National albums, but even in that relaxed, or less inherently complicated state, it is still a dense, organic, and contemplative sounding record.
There are ‘moments,’ too, across Serpentine Prison—moments that might not be as enormous or cathartic as they are when Berninger is working with The National, but moments never the less when the elements tumble together beautifully to create something that either takes the wind out of you momentarily, or stays with you well after you’ve finished listening.
And, more importantly, at least for me, the reason that this album works so well and is so captivating is because of Berninger’s lyricism. It is a ‘solo’ album, yes, and perhaps under that guise is the reason it seems much more personal, or introspective than his writing within The National, but across Serpentine Prison, there is a give and take between self-effacement and self-reflection, and eventually, as you unpack the lyrics, Berninger is no longer holding up the mirror to himself—eventually he’s pointing it at you.
Even in The National’s earliest material, when Berninger was writing much more ambiguous, shadowy, fragmented lyrics that were a lot less direct, or at least easier to pin down, there was still a sense of humor that could be found—at times, a little dry, or a little deadpan, but humor, never the less. He hasn’t lost that over time, and brings it into Serpentine Prison right out of the gate on “My Eyes Are T-Shirts.” “My eyes are t-shirts, they’re so easy to read,” he begins. “I wear ‘em for you, but they’re all about me. They always say ‘I want you to take me home.’ They always say, ‘I want you to leave me alone.”
And even when things take a serious turn—or at more personally urgent turn, in these songs, as they so often do, as the album unfolds, there are still bits of those dry witticisms throughout, like in “One More Second,” the album’s third single, and one of it finest and most infectious songs. Even as the protagonist of the song is pleading, for what is, more or less, a second chance with their partner, you just have to laugh at the notion of someone asking for, “One more year to get back on track.”
But this is where Berninger, smartly, lowers the mirror from his own face and points in your direction.
When Serpentine Prison works, it really hits, and a majority of it is quite gorgeous, intelligent, and emotionally impactful. Sometimes that impact hits right away; other times, much like the music itself, that, at times, can slowly simmer, it takes a little while for how the song is going to devastate you personally to reveal itself.
The album’s second single, and second track, the sweeping “Distant Axis,” is an example of that.
Co-written with Walter Martin, formerly of the beloved indie outfit The Walkman, “Distant Axis” is, in short, an ode to when you realize something is over. “I think it’s about falling out of touch with someone or something you once thought would be there forever,” Berninger explains of the song’s depth, which resonates deeply through the returned to lyrics from the song’s refrain: “I feel like I’m as far as I can get from you,” which is delivered with a heightened sense of both immediacy, but more importantly, desperation—and I am uncertain why it took until listening to the album as a whole for this song, and specifically that moment to hit me as hard as it did, but there is something heartbreaking and perfect about the way the arrangement builds just a little and then swoons during the refrain, culminating in that line, with haunting background vocals contributed by Martin and Andrew Bird.
It isn’t easy to recognize and confront the distance that has grown between you and someone or something, let alone actually putting a name to it, but “Distant Axis” does it all with an admirable, gentle, harrowing grace, and the very tangible feeling of being far away from the thing, or person, you were once close to, lingers in your thoughts well after the album has moved forward.
Berninger, as a caricature within his own songs, has painted himself as kind of a ‘lovable fuck up.’ Maybe he drinks a little too much, maybe too anxious and depressed, the deprecating assessments come with a charming smile that doesn’t require you to feel sympathetic, but you might regardless. He plays up this version of himself on “One More Second.” Shuffling and groove oriented thanks to the slinky arrangements by Jones, the back to back sequencing of “Distant Axis” and “One More Second,” thematically speaking, is a lot—maybe even just too much if you aren’t ready for this much self-reflection. Lyrically, it’s another chapter in Beringer’s ongoing tale of how hard he is to love, or, if you remove him from it, how difficult it is to continually find the patience with a depressed person.
He describes it as a “desperate and classic” love song—going so far as to say it was written with being the other side of the conversation from a song like “I Will Always Love You” in mind.
The stakes are high, and things, right out of the gate, seem dire on “One More Second,” with Berninger conceding in the song’s first verse, “The way we talked last night—it felt like a different kind of fight,” then coming back to it with even more urgency in the second verse: “‘Cause the way you looked at me this morning gave my weak heart warning.”
There are assurances (“Baby, I’m gonna be fine when I figure out where I’m going”), but the song returns to a place of frenzied pleading, which is what resonates the most from the song, and is built around quick escalation. Berninger goes from asking for one more second, to a day, then to a year, then to a life. Firmly planted in a sense of pathos, it’s also one of the most human, applicable moments on the album.
While, overall, the sense of tension and release that is so prevalent in The National’s work is absent from Serpentine Prison, there is an undercurrent of something tense, or a little unnerving, that never really finds resolution, as the album heads into its middle section with the slow, smoldering “Silver Springs.”
Featuring a guest verse and smoky background vocals from Gail Ann Dorsey, whom Berninger collaborated with in the past on The National’s I Am Easy to Find, there is something borderline mysterious, or at least Lynchian in the sense of creeping desperation and dread that comes simply from the tremoloed guitar that begins “Silver Springs.” A Vic Chesnutt reference included, lyrically, there is a very real immediacy and urgency in the song: “Forget about what I said—I wanna meet you somewhere right now,” he begins, then later adding “I wanna burn down a house. I want you to kill my time.”
Dorsey, for her part, plays foil to Berninger and never really answers his pleas. Instead, she echoes the sentiment from the song’s swaying refrain: “They’ll never understand you anyway in Silver Springs.”
Of all the songs on Serpentine Prison, “Oh Dearie” is probably both the darkest, lyrically, but also the gentlest, musically. Juxtaposed against a very “folky” sound of spiraling, dual acoustic guitars plucked away, Berninger plunges himself into the depths of depression. The lyrics are structured not so much simplistically, but there’s a skeletal quality to them that is admirable—nothing is dressed up in dense metaphors here. “I am near the bottom—name the blues, I got ‘em,” a line that walks the dangerous line of being taken seriously and looked at as a punchline. “I don’t see no brightness,” he continues. “I’m kinda startin’ to like this.”
“How do people do it? I cannot see through it,” he asks later, before the refrain of, “Oh dearie—don’t get near me. Paralysis has me.” Without the intelligent use of the contrasting tonality, I’m uncertain if a song like this would otherwise work. The lyrics are wildly melodramatic, but I think that’s the point—but delivered in as surprisingly calm way, against the lush arrangement serving as the backdrop, the sharpened edges of the subject matter are much more palatable to a casual listener who might not want to, or be accustomed to, hearing pop songs about mental health.
Have you ever been left waiting for someone? It doesn’t matter how long—just a few minutes, or maybe closer to an hour. If you’re anxious like me, a terrible, unsettled sense of panic overcomes you almost instantly—then the ocean of calm that washes over you when you see the face of the person you’ve been waiting for.
Of all the songs on Serpentine Prison, “Take Me Out of Town” is the one that sounds the most like a National tune, specifically because of the progression of the piano—this time, courtesy of longtime friend of the band, Hayden Desser, the criminally underrated Canadian singer/songwriter. The big, swaying chords sound familiar, though once the rest of the instrumentation comes tumbling in, there is enough reserve and restraint practiced that there is no way to confuse this for a National track.
“Take Me Out of Town” is, hands down, one of the album’s finest moments and one of the songs, much like “Oh Dearie,” “Distant Axis,” and “One More Second,” that I have the most personal connection to, and that I feel simultaneously seen and attacked by—an awful reflection of my worst parts in a disgusting, smudged, broken mirror. Even with the restraint within the musical accompaniment, lyrically it sees Berninger at his most unhinged—though he, too, practices an incredible amount of vocal control from not letting loose on some of these lyrics. “Where are you? You said you’d be here by now—you said you’d be here any minute,” the song begins, and then grows exponentially more manic with the snap of a finger. “Swear to god I’ve never been so burned out. Gonna lose it any minute.”
And out of all of the desperate moments on Serpentine Prison, “Take Me Out of Town” might be the song that features the most harrowing and desperate—“Everyone’s in this alone,” Berninger confesses in the second verse, before asking, “Is this how you thought it’d turn out?” And then perhaps the most difficult to hear, but also among the lyrics that I understood the sentiment of the most: “I don’t know how to be here without you—I don’t know how to go on.”
Before Serpentine Prison concludes with its titular track, incidentally the album’s first single, and one of the songs that I (perhaps unfortunately) enjoy the least5—though I am appreciative of the lyric, “You say I’m a lot—that I’m hard to take,” the album winds down the the gorgeous, gentle shuffle of “All for Nothing.” Based around twinkling piano, distended slide guitar, and brushed percussion, it continues the further theme of alienation—and if not so much alienation, the act of pushing people away, or keeping them at a distance—“Go on float away, don’t try to orbit me,” Berninger sings in the song’s second verse, fully committed to the inclusion of a space metaphor. “They said it’s hard to live here. No one comes around, I got no gravity—the weather’s unforgiving.”
The pairing of Booker T. Jones and Matt Berninger still, even after sitting with Serpentine Prison, seems like it shouldn’t work as well as it does. There is a creative friction that you can feel at times—though I get the impression that Jones put together arrangements that were dense and soulful enough to be interesting, but reserved and relaxed enough to not overpower; in turn, Berninger remains charismatically restrained with his lyrics and his vocal performance, and never flies off the handle or becomes as nervy and unpredictable as he can within The National. In the end, it’s a gorgeous, rich album that finds an accessible space in between Jones’ soul and R&B pedigree and Berninger’s sad white dad rock persona, stacked with a cavalcade of performers including the aforementioned appearances by Hayden Desser and Walter Martin, alongside Andrew Bird, Berninger’s El Vy bandmate Brent Knopf, and Phoebe Bridgers’ guitarist Harrison Whitford, among others.
Whether intentional or not, or whether it is a blurred line between the truth and ‘creative non-fiction,’ Berninger, in his hyper-literate lyrics, has created a striking, difficult portrait—one that I of himself, the lovable misanthrope he’s played the role of since the early days of The National, but that portrait is also a canvas that works as a portrait of yourself. And it’s that deeply personal and emotional connection that I have to The National that carried itself over to Serpentine Prison, a record that, even with its minor faults (there are moments when it seems a little slow), is both delicate and unrelenting in its introspective nature.
1- This was a conversation had during the recording session for a podcast episode.
2- I’m uncertain why I still bother with Pitchfork, and usually I take issue with something that they’ve either panned totally, or that I think was given an unfair chance. I also rarely understand what they choose to provide coverage to these day—both with news, as well as reviews; this is probably because I am so washed.
3- The idea of ‘music journalism’ is subjective, which is funny because ‘journalism’ is objective. When I wrote for a newspaper, one of the first things I learned was there is no way to work any editorializing, of any kind, into a piece. Inherently, an album review is not ‘journalism.’
4- This might be petty of me, but Hannah Jocelyn, who started contributing to Pitchfork earlier this year, only seems to churn out tepid, uninspired reviews, with nearly every album she’s covered receiving a 6.something.
5- Mostly I just have a problem with how lazy the rhyme scheme is the song’s refrain, but this isn’t the first time Berninger has done this in a song (e.g. "Graceless.")