Matt Berninger: Serpentine Prison (Book/Concord) - review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, November 26th, 2020  

Matt Berninger

Serpentine Prison

Book/Concord

Nov 09, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


“My eyes are T-shirts, they’re so easy to read”—those words have as much poeticism as Katy Perry’s “do you ever feel like a plastic bag dancing in the wind,” but it kind of pulls through for Matt Berninger (of The National) on “My Eyes Are T-Shirts,” the opener to his solo debut, Serpentine Prison, when he self-effaces, “I wear them for you, but they’re all about me.” Well, just barely. Thankfully, almost immediately, things improve and soar. 

Track two, “Distant Axis,” written with Walter Martin, plots an assured step in the right direction, and track three, “One More Second,” is Berninger at his best—playing the knowing dude aware things will fall apart but desperate enough to give it all up for one more chance. His deep baritone again sets nicely against Gail Ann Dorsey’s backing vocals (Dorsey was a guest on The National’s 2019 album, I Am Easy to Find). The song also resonates acutely with the current moment—“The last time we were together/Lately it feels like forever,” Berninger sings after the quiet, stirring, acoustic preamble. Booker T Jones’ masterful stroke on the Hammond organ soon brightens the melancholia and laces the nostalgia for a satisfying second half and climax in a manner that only a living legend of his status can. It’s a sprinkling of musical fairy dust on an already perfectly formed song, owing as much to Jones’ deft production skills and the players he commands as Berninger’s songwriting and delivery. 

An iconic architect of the Memphis Soul sound and with his band Booker T. & the M.G.s (“Green Onions”), Jones is not the first person you would hazard a guess to produce Berringer’s solo debut. The partnership works and brings an unexpected blues-edge to Berninger’s indie rock sensibilities while The National fans get more acquainted with the Stax Records pioneer who has produced for equally towering talents such as Willie Nelson (Stardust) and Neil Young (Are You Passionate?). And at 75, Jones shows no sign of slowing down having recently published a memoir, accompanying album Note By Note (which features Berninger doing a cover of “Stardust”), and launched a new record label aimed at producing a new generation of Memphis talent. 

Without his bandmates, Berninger got a little help from his usual friends—EL VY collaborator Brent Knopf, Martin (whose band The Walkmen in the early aughts featured The National as their opening act), and Canadian songwriter, Hayden Desser. It is an album replete with high points, as long as Berninger steers clear of waxing poetic about articles of clothing or their isolated parts—e.g. “Collar Of Your Shirt.” Like his first reference on the opening track, which one gathers is a convoluted way of expressing “the eyes are a window to the soul,” it’s unclear what he’s trying to say. The maudlin instrumentation coupled with his thinning vocals as he is pushed further into the higher registers makes it the least likable track here. 

But you can’t fault Berninger for trying something different, especially when this clutch of songs includes “One More Second,” “All For Nothing,” and “Take Me Out of Town”—all utterly sublime. “Loved So Little” treads new ground with rootsy harmonica and updates a blues-trope of the fight between God and the devil with a case for throwing out religion altogether: “Why are people still calling/Don’t they know that we’re never gonna buy another/Batshit story of bad kids in the garden.” And “Silver Springs,” the duet with Dorsey, has the pace of a sticky, bayou summer. It highlights Berninger’s lyricism, pitting Dorsey’s as the stronger voice in this power play about finding the gumption to break out of your own bubble. 

Serpentine Prison is not as self-assured as his two decades-long oeuvre with The National, or even that one album he made as EL VY with Knopf. But in this season of discontent, it’s a worthy exercise in bridging seemingly disparate musical worlds, long demarcated by the color line. And as is common with any kind of growth—missteps and discomfort are just par of the course. (www.mattberningerswebsite.com)

Author rating: 7/10

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Average reader rating: 5/10



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