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.