One of indie rock’s most brooding frontmen—Matt Berninger of The National—has made a career out of making loneliness sound nuanced. Lyrically, he has always embraced his proclivity for overthinking—and his songs are all the better for it. Since the release of the group’s eponymous debut album back in 2001, Berninger has shown how deeply he relishes detail; every glance, every kiss, every argument and every breakup is laid out with such dexterity that listeners could easily mistake his pain for their own.
After 20 years of success with The National, he has finally opted to release a solo record, Serpentine Prison. As expected, it shines a new light on the artist. Although his devastating baritone has guided the group for two decades, stripping it down for Serpentine Prison provides a different kind of decadence that only he—as both a vocalist and songwriter—could seamlessly pull off. The most satisfying part of Serpentine Prison is that it’s not a continuation of The National’s incredible discography. Berninger has always been a skilled lyricist, but on this project he zeroes in on personal relationships with much more intensity.
Opening track “My Eyes Are T-Shirts” emphasizes how complex and contradictory love can be. Berninger insists that his “tongue’s a bible in a drawer of a desk,” unable to handle the lashings that an unpredictable lover will eventually dish out. However, he acknowledges how vital that relationship is. The barreling acoustic guitar on “Distant Axis” prompts the singer to lament the painful nature of longing with a wistful chorus and simple lyrical approach. “Loved So Little” shows how well Berninger can narrate a story even through his self-deprecation.
“Silver Springs” features a cameo from Gail Ann Dorsey and is more of a bluesy ballad in which both artists play up their low tenors and dramatic cadences. The breathtaking and harrowing piano chords on “Take Me Out of Town” soon give way to bigger and more orchestral melodies. “All For Nothing” takes a similar musical approach with its softness in the face of Berninger’s own eccentric imagery: “Just tell me there are swimming holes in outer space / With train cars at the bottom / Everyone’s a passenger in this place / Heaven’s in the water.”
Although the somber nature of the album’s title track was wholly predictable, Berninger’s own heavy-handed bitterness still manages to get the best of him: “Whatever it is I try not to listen / Cold cynicism and blind nihilism / I need a vacation from intoxication / Tell her I’m missing in a serpentine prison.”
Berninger’s sonic meandering is a fruitful endeavor that only further solidifies his songwriting skills—no matter the depths of his despair. His first solo effort is a delicate exploration of a range of emotions, from love and sadness to betrayal and forgiveness. Serpentine Prison is a gentle reminder that imperfection is a powerful trait despite mainstream messages stating the opposite.
The singer’s career hinges on his intrigue; both his voice and words captivate listeners by striking an emotional chord with clarity, specificity and grace. Although this album probably won’t be his last, it nestles itself nicely among the singer’s existing body of work. Serpentine Prison displays infinite promise from an artist who has already given us a catalogue that has made a lasting impact on rock music as we know it.
Candace McDuffie is a culture writer whose work has appeared in outlets like Rolling Stone, MTV, NBC News, and Entertainment Weekly. You can follow her on Instagram @candace.mcduffie.