Matt Berninger
Serpentine Prison


4.0
excellent

Review

by Sunnyvale CONTRIBUTOR (25 Reviews)
October 20th, 2020 | 89 replies


Release Date: 10/16/2020 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Everything you could want from a Matt Berninger solo album in 2020

Serpentine Prison sees Matt Berninger (The National’s singer) striking out on his own, an intriguing development with uncertain results. The album ultimately reveals Berninger simultaneously exploring a few avenues which he likely wouldn’t have if still under the auspices of his full band, while also retaining key elements which defined The National’s masterful run. Most of the tunes here aren’t so far sonically from the more downcast and reserved outliers in The National’s canon (think “Daughters of the Soho Riots” or “Hard To Find”), but here and there you’ll find Berninger carefully turning down a new path.

In terms of quality, Serpentine Prison is undoubtedly a sound product. None of the ten tracks on display are remotely near bad, although there are a few which may feel a tad lightweight compared to some of their contemporaries. That said, the inevitable comparison of the album to previous works Berninger has been deeply involved in creating likely won’t do its reputation any favors, as Serpentine Prison doesn’t really hold up in brilliance to something like Alligator, Boxer, or High Violet. On its own merits though, this is a great, great release.

Berninger’s singing is at his best here, and as it is a solo release he does generally take center stage, singing over mostly restrained and tasteful instrumentation. As usual, Berninger is a master of creating subtle vocal melodies which really begin to hit the listener upon repeated listens. The lyrics are crisp and strong as expected, the words capturing Berninger’s characteristic sardonic emotiveness. Stylistically, the songs here mostly fall into the indie rock/chamber pop template which one might expect, sedate and peacefully melancholy. The primary “new” influences which Berninger seems to be toying with are largely in fact rather old, in particular on a track like “Silver Springs”, which is only a slight stretch to feel would be right at home being sung by Billy Joel or even (taken much further) Frank Sinatra. Lyrically, these comparisons are far-fetched, but they’re more about the feeling the song evokes. Instrumentally, there are only a few moments of release (such as the jazzy backdrop on "Loved So Little") which break the mold of overwhelming musical restraint. The best songs here (by my reckoning, "Distant Axis", "One More Second", "Oh Dearie", and the closing title track) stand up well with Berninger’s rock-solid previous track record, but the album does suffer from being a bit one note. A little more musical diversity would go a long way here.

Serpentine Prison is certainly a must-hear release for fans of Berninger’s previous musical endeavors, and most indie aficionados more broadly would probably find something to like here. The album is not a surefire classic, and it is a bit too staid and reserved when taken as a whole, but as a collection of songs it demonstrates that Berninger is creating great music and leaves us with some interesting contemplations on what direction he will pursue next.



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user ratings (106)
3.6
great


Comments:Add a Comment 
Sunnyvale
Contributing Reviewer
October 20th 2020


2269 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I was surprised this didn't have a review by now. I'm loving it, even if I recognize it isn't a perfect album

theBoneyKing
October 20th 2020


20314 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Great review! There are some amazing tunes here.

Sunnyvale
Contributing Reviewer
October 20th 2020


2269 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Thanks Boney! And yes indeed, definitely agree

EyesWideShut
October 20th 2020


5498 Comments


better than the last National album ? I hope..

theBoneyKing
October 21st 2020


20314 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

It’s a much more cohesive and concise listen at the very least.

SowingSeason
Moderator
October 21st 2020


37421 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

It's like The National with more poppy songwriting and some unexpected flourishes. A beautiful album in the moment, but it's a tad forgettable.

Digging: Porter Robinson - Nurture

Rowan5215
Staff Reviewer
October 21st 2020


45075 Comments

Album Rating: 3.7

I surprisingly enjoyed this a fair bit. Distant Axis had me worried but that's easily the weakest thing here



One More Second, Loved So Little and Collar of Your Shirt are killer

Digging: Brockhampton - Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine

theBoneyKing
October 21st 2020


20314 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Last two songs are my fave methinks

Sunnyvale
Contributing Reviewer
October 21st 2020


2269 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I definitely think that this one's superior to I Am Easy To Find, maybe on par with Sleep Well Beast

Cormano
October 21st 2020


2688 Comments


no way Axis is the weakest here

production on this thing is top notch, been loving One More Second since I first heard it, soty of the year

SowingSeason
Moderator
October 21st 2020


37421 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Axis was actually one of my favorites.

This is better than the most recent National record but doesn't come close to Sleep Well Beast (or almost any other National output, for that matter).

Lucman
October 21st 2020


5192 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

This is a great album when I listened but I don't have an urge to go back to it.

Digging: Origami Angel - Gami Gang

tectactoe
October 21st 2020


4100 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

Enjoyable album, and maybe my head is too far up The National's ass at this point to have a truly unbiased opinion, but this really exhibits how critical both Aaron Dessner and Bryan Devendorf are to what makes The National special. Grated, I know Matt isn't trying to make a National album here, but the overlap to his own songwriting tendencies is obviously. Subtract the subtle, melodic guitar work and the banshee drums and, well... here's what you have. It's good, but to sidestep the inevitable comparisons to his parent group, Matt would've needed to release something far beyond the boundaries of their genre. (In short: This is too "National-y" while missing two key components required to successfully pull-off "National-y"...)



Nice review.

Dewinged
Staff Reviewer
October 21st 2020


24299 Comments


Good stuff Sunny, I don't think I'll give this more than one listen though.

Digging: Arabrot - Norwegian Gothic

Rowan5215
Staff Reviewer
October 21st 2020


45075 Comments

Album Rating: 3.7

not even close to I Am Easy to Find but there's nothing on here as bad Beast's worst moments either



is no one else bothered by how Axis is a carbon copy of that Decemberists song though lmao, it's unmissable

theBoneyKing
October 21st 2020


20314 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

I get what you’re saying tectac, I guess for me it’s the difference between classic and “merely” excellent.

Cormano
October 21st 2020


2688 Comments


which song Row?

Rowan5215
Staff Reviewer
October 21st 2020


45075 Comments

Album Rating: 3.7

I think it was crane wife 3 or something, haven't heard it in years. the guitar pattern on distant axis is exactly the same as it



I also just don't care for the song, those weird "if only youuuu"s are the first time I haven't liked his voice in a long long time

dustandnations
October 21st 2020


356 Comments


any EL VY fans in here?


theBoneyKing
October 21st 2020


20314 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Yeah Row I noticed the Crane Wife 3/Distant Axis similarity too. I love the Decemberists song though so I guess I choose to view it as an homage rather than a rip (CW3 is better though obvs)



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