A familiar voice gone solo
The National lead singer Matt Berninger has officially left his comfort zone. His debut solo album, Serpentine Prison, is out now. Though Berninger’s low baritone vocals will be familiar to anyone who has listened to The National throughout their many years at the forefront of indie rock, followers will be surprised by the bareness of this record’s sound. Having stripped away many of the elements of his other musical projects, Matt Berninger is attempting, through Serpentine Prison, to bring The National’s usual tone back to its bare basics. Pure and earthy melodies are allowed to simply exist, primarily over acoustic guitar, with the exception of a few more standout moments in other instrumentation. The album is the perfect counterbalance to Berninger’s usual alternative sound.
The Cincinnati native singer-songwriter has been The National frontman since its formation in 1999. The legendary group has accumulated a well-respected discography of eight studio albums, with their most recent, I Am Easy to Find, releasing back in 2019. Fortunately, the brilliant songwriting that fans have grown to both love and expect from The National has made its way into this solo record. While the signature sound that Berninger and co. have cultivated over the years is still here, that sound enters a totally new light on this solo release.
A solo album from any frontman or frontwoman can act as a testament to what they’re capable of without their usual peers. Serpentine Prison presents a new strength in Berninger. The title track is distinctively raw; Berninger’s voice feels so close that one might just touch his soul if they choose to reach out. He sings of the need for relief from the confines of life, beautifully conveying this innate pain in a lullaby form.
“Love So Little” introduces a different feeling, dipping into a more Americana-adjacent pocket. While Berninger’s does do some dancing in his higher register on this track, his breathtaking and deeply vibrating baritone still produces a gorgeous and satisfying softness. He also brings out a few other instruments, swimming in some bluegrass waters and reaching for some folkish fiddle tones that separate this track from the rest of the album.
The acoustic guitar on this album truly deserves a credit all to itself. On songs like “One More Second,” the acoustic guitar is the main character and emotional center. It shines throughout the whole album, but takes on a certain elegant strength in the role of the instrumental backbone on tracks like this one. Another highlight, “Silver Springs,” switches things up by plugging in and working with Berninger’s soft vibrato to create an extremely gentle listen. The acoustic never exits the equation; it creates depth under the electric. This track also features the stunning tones of Gail Ann Dorsey, another perfect contrast to Berninger.
Overall, this is a beautifully crafted record from top to bottom. Serpentine Prison is an album to get lost in, with each track presenting pure and simple songwriting magic. The National fans will certainly be able to sit back and be proud of Berninger’s first ever full-length solo venture. He stayed true to his signature sound and vocal style from The National, while still experimenting here and there in ways that shed new light on his craft. What else could one ask of a solo debut?