Okay. Okay. I know. I have been banging on about The National for years and here I am again, predictably telling you that Serpentine Prison is one of 2020’s best records. Why even bother reading when you all know how biased I am? Well, I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. But maybe it will help if I tell you from the start that I was actually kind of dreading this album’s release. With the Dessners and Devendorfs backing him up, I never have a reason to worry about the music that will underpin Matt Berninger’s vocals and lyrics. But without his buddies from The National, I wondered what he would have to offer in musical terms. I feared something that was too close to The National to justify its existence as a solo output or, instead, a departure so vast that it wouldn’t suit my favourite singers very specific style of delivery.
But I didn’t get either of those things. Undoubtedly, there will be some people who will listen to this album and dismiss it as National-lite. But I would challenge those people. Berninger’s voice is so distinctive, so closely associated with his band, that I kind of felt the same way when I had only heard the singles. But there is much that separates the music here from the music of The National. If I use the most recent single ‘One More Second’ as an example for a moment, I might be able to get across what I mean. On a casual listen, what do we have? A Berninger baritone, a song about a breakup, a quiet but always building instrumentation. All elements of The National, for sure. But this song doesn’t have the standard crescendo that the band always adopt, it isn’t driven by its percussion, the gorgeous guitar line is sparse and doesn’t feature the sweeps and diversions so often integral to the Dessners. This song has a different makeup. It’s more soulful, gentler, more to the point. Even in his lyrics here, Matt has tended towards the more straightforward and less abstract. But he still manages to create one of the most alluring and heartbreaking love songs I’ve heard in a long time.
There’s a similar feel to all three singles, with ‘Distant Axis’ probably being the one that does feel most like it could’ve been on the next The National album. But there are other ways in which he departs, too. Nick Cave has often been cited as an influence on this Ohio born singer, but that inspiration has never been as clearly felt as it in on the wonderful ‘Loved So Little’ – a song that sounds as if it was written specifically for a saloon-based scene in a blood-soaked cowboy film (and I mean that in a good way). The subdued and beautiful ‘Oh Dearie’ has elements of folk and country, and some of the most beautiful moments on the whole record. ‘Collar of Your Shirt’ might go a little unnoticed on the first few listens, as calming and mellow as it is, but if you let that raspy percussion get into your veins you won’t be able to resist it. Even when the strings come in, this song is bare and open in a way that almost nothing else that Berninger has previously sung on has been. It has quickly become my favourite song on the album and one of my songs of the year. I have talked about how The National use crescendos, turning their songs from slow burners into unbridled release, but there is something equally exciting about the way this song builds. Adding layer on top of layer but never feeling anything other than calm, quiet, and inviting.
So yes, I have ended up with the predictable result. I love this album. But I love it for a lot of things that I probably wouldn’t have predicted; its quiet beauty, its simple and to the point lyrics, its country and folk influences, and its soulful musicianship. I wondered what Matt would do without the rest of The National and in the end, he invited in a whole host of musicians and producers who knew how to help him shape his songs to suit that distinctive voice that so many will struggle to separate from its past associations. I worried whether Matt would be able to justify this side project in the same way that he did with El Vy and that his bandmates have done with a whole host of diversions; in the end, he bettered them all.
Words by Fran Slater