The painted portrait of Matt Berninger on the cover of his new solo album seems straightforward and on-brand enough for The National’s frontman. The image of him sitting quietly and alone in the corner of a gray room could easily pass for what one might imagine he does for kicks between tours.
After 19 years and eight acclaimed and beloved albums, we know this guy—and his gifts. Still, there’s something about the composition of the familiar man in the painting that compels you to keep searching for every detail in the brushstrokes. And then… there it is. A serpent’s head emerging from the shadow of his dangling left foot. It’s easy to miss, but it holds the whole concept together. Just like the songs on Serpentine Prison, you have to stop and sit in silent stillness, letting the tiny details slowly and meticulously reveal the bigger picture.
Those quiet details take the place of the driving dynamic bombast and sonic experimentation that usually accompany Berninger’s familiar baritone, and they provide a gorgeous pastoral backdrop for his haunted meditations on loneliness and fear. Producer, multi-instrumentalist and living legend Booker T. Jones gives Berninger’s voice plenty of space—but tastefully sprinkles stardust in all the right places. The muted piano, plucked strings and sparse lap steel on “My Eyes Are T-Shirts” are a masterclass in subtle soulfulness. Gail Ann Dorsey—whose guest vocals were such a highlight on The National’s last album—makes a welcome return, blending perfectly with Berninger’s on standout tracks like “Silver Springs” and “Oh Dearie.”
The bulk of these tracks explore the terrain of loneliness or worse—the fear of loneliness—that Matt Berninger has all but perfected over the course of his career. On “One More Second,” the creeping dread of always being one day, week, month or year away from being who his lover needs him to be—watching her patience slowly disappear, reveals itself in the chorus as Berninger pleads, “Give me one more year to get back on track/ Give me one more life to win you back/ Smoke’s in our eyes or in the distance/ Either way, we’re gonna miss it/ When it’s gone.”
The album ends with the title track, on which he struggles to complete daily domestic tasks like calling an electrician and picking his daughter up from school—while the world slips into chaos and nationalist violence. “I walk into walls and I lay awake/ I don’t wanna give it to my daughter,” he sings after reckoning, unsuccessfully with his anxiety. It’s a cold reminder—as if we needed one—of the times we are enduring. The brutal confessions wrapped in Jones’ expert production come across like no-bullshit face-to-face talk with an old friend. And since we’re living in an age where “face-to-face” carries the ultimate risk, that shared vulnerability creates a powerful bond. It ends the album with a beautiful chill.
Thematically, there are no real surprises here. A barrel of laughs, Matt Berninger is not. Remember—we know this guy. While this album isn’t a huge artistic reinvention, it still succeeds on the strength of Berninger’s auteur-like focus and the subtle but brilliant performances of his collaborators. This album may be trapped in the prison of Berninger’s identity, but the twisting tunnels he digs with Jones lead to what could be the beginning of a new creative freedom for him. Serpentine Prison certainly earns him enough goodwill to take some bigger thematic risks in the future. Perhaps one day we’ll learn we don’t know this guy after all.
Follow Skott Bennett at Twitter.com/skottbennett.