With more harrowing precision than ever, Matt Berninger offers himself as a pin cushion for the fearful lovers of the world on Serpentine Prison.
Right before sitting down to write this review, I found one of those perfect Youtube comments on Matt Berninger’s video One More Second – the final single from his solo album Serpentine Prison. It read:
“Matt looks like the kind of professor that just went through a divorce and comes in hungover everyday before class.”
Sure, everyone had that teacher who would uncompromisingly enter the room with their hands over their eyes in a waft of cigarette smoke and despair. But it’s Berninger to a tee; emotionally vulnerable and undoubtedly cool despite a veneer of dad-tier lameness. The truth is, we all kind of loved that smelly teacher.
On Serpentine Prison Berninger’s songwriting is as cool and collected as ever, despite the lyrics dancing between artistic burnout, nihilism and faith, or desperate love and its old friend loneliness. Gut-punch lines speckle the record as densely as sand on a beach, and instrumental arrangements courtesy of producer Booker T. Jones do little to alleviate their emotional impact.
Now a showman of great poise and renown, Berninger has stripped himself back to a time-honoured class of songwriting. It’s far less of a left turn than Alex Turner’s Cohen-inspired leap of faith on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, but strikes a similar chord. On Serpentine Prison Berninger has the greats in mind, from Nick Cave to Willie Nelson. Songwriters who twist around songs like plasticine, finding and exploiting their weak points with lines so well-placed you’ll be mad at them for hitting the bullseye before realising their genius.
In Collar Of Your Shirt Berninger calls his love “an outward spiral”, a fitting descriptor of the record at large. Serpentine Prison bleeds with intensity, from the blindly transparent opener My Eyes Are T-Shirts to the terrifying takes on isolation found amongst Loved So Little.
A challenge of this album was always going to be differentiating it from the music of Berninger’s iconic band, The National. His soft vocals and often gut-wrenching lyrics are central to their appeal, not to mention more than a decade working together has gifted Scott Devendorf, Bryan Devendorf, Bryce Dessner, and Aaron Dessner a preternatural ability to play into Berninger’s complex beast of a voice.
The arrangements which have categorised The National over the years – a melancholy, lackadaisical, left-centre rock but rock nonetheless – have become archetypal through sheer force of numbers and renown. So with the guiding hand of Booker T. Jones, rather than brothers Dessner or Devendorf, Serpentine Prison presents Berninger as a different enough talent. If anything, it gives him a greater share of the spotlight.
The record dips closest into familiar territory on Take Me Out Of Town, and subtle differences are present elsewhere. Lush electric guitars give way to warm organs and a greater reliance on the simplicity of the piano (a lifelong favourite of multi-instrumentalist Jones), and the arrangements as a whole feel more spacious.
Serpentine Prison is a beautiful album, if harrowing throughout, and for now Berninger’s image as a love-torn poet will remain intact. Behind every fear-driven ode to loneliness is the hope for perfect love, and behind every implosion of existential dread is a glimmer of faith that everything will be, and always was, ok.
However Berninger may make you feel, there’s always another, deeper emotion to be felt, drawing you ever further into his world. Everything is delivered with utter class; an expertise reserved for those climbing the highest peaks of songwriting despite the potential of a great fall. Like that hungover professor, watching him pull through with each new project is a reward unto itself.
Serpentine Prison is a masterclass that will go down as another near-perfect entry from the artist, sitting beside Matt Berninger’s iconic band discography, stylish and elegant as the rest.
Serpentine Prison is out now via Book’s Records/Concord Records/Caroline Australia. Stream or purchase your copy here.