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Matt Berninger - Serpentine Prison (Album Review)

Tuesday, 27 October 2020 Written by Huw Baines

Photo: Chantal Anderson

Matt Berninger has one of those voices that you could climb inside. Its default setting is a cracked Leonard Cohen rumble, with rich emotions alternately cloaked and revealed by melodic feints and turns of phrase that flatten it to a near whisper. 

On his first solo album, ‘Serpentine Prison’, these dynamics are challenged by stateley, tasteful arrangements that leave scant room for the sense of miserable triumphalism that has become such a favourite in his day job fronting the National.

Stemming from a desire to work with the legendary Booker T. Jones on a covers LP inspired by Willie Nelson’s ‘Stardust’, his father’s favourite record, on ‘Serpentine Prison’ Berninger butts heads with the production in the most respectful manner possible.

Meaning that, without the electronic washes and off-kilter darkness of the National to sharpen his edges, he sounds a tad comfortable. 

‘Serpentine Prison’ is meticulously assembled and beautifully performed, relying on whirring organs and a sense of space to offset ruminative acoustic guitars. There are several perfect storms where Berninger injects a sense of louche charm into this mix, as when his loping hook is met by dancing strings on the excellent Loved So Little. His words here are fabulous too: punchy, ambiguous and even a trifle menacing.

Elsewhere, things are woolly and unadventurous. One More Second cannot find the blood and guts of its story, relying instead on platitudes that could easily have been fodder for a boy band ballad two decades ago. “Give me one more second to dry my eyes,” he sings. “Give me one more day to realise.” 

People flock to the National’s altar because they want to see their feelings blown up into arena-filling obsessions. It’s hard to see many getting the same kick here. Still, at the core of ‘Serpentine Prison’ is the pleasure of hearing a great singer surrounded by musicians who know what they’re about. Perhaps that’s enough for Berninger in these most complicated of times. 

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