It might make sense to say Matt Berninger’s debut solo album ‘Serpentine Prison’ – a thing of wisdom and beauty – has been 19 years in the making, going off the musician’s first release as the frontman of The National in 2001. But scratch the surface and his real muse, Willie Nelson’s album of covers ‘Stardust’, reveals a love affair with Berninger’s world-weary romanticism that dates back to 1978.
Berninger says that ‘Stardust’, an album beloved by his father and released when he was seven years old, makes him feel “safe and happy,” and praises the record’s “tenderness and optimism”. His goal was to honour that album by releasing a collection of covers – not, then, to make anything as original and devastatingly brilliant as ‘Serpentine Prison’. Still, the evocative sense of calm on Nelson’s record is deeply felt here. The common link between the two releases? Booker T. Jones, the writer-producer-composer extraordinaire who worked on both.
Jones is generous both as a producer and a player on ‘Serpentine Prison’ – it’s a taut 10-track wonder, often familiar for National fans while also surprising: that’ll be Jones on the organ, on the piano, on a seductive bass too. Berninger says he writes melodies first and rearranges lyrics like Lego pieces after – but it’s the alchemy of both that makes it really sing, that maelstrom of thoughtful acoustic sounds which lay the brickwork for the musician’s fatalistic, trenchant words on heartbreak and politics and everything in-between.
‘My Eyes Are T-Shirts’ boasts Berninger’s unparalleled knack for cinematically visual lyrics, as he softly nods how “you walk in the room like a blade in a cutter” while the mellow twang of a guitar barely flinches. Bittersweet energy fuels ‘Distant Axis’ too, a standout, with its shimmering chorus placing it alongside some of The National’s most gripping efforts. It makes for quite the one-two punch into ‘One More Second’, buoyed by a featherlight piano and Jones’ near-spiritual organ solo. It then propels this collection of acoustic heartbreakers into something with much more gravitas, governed by a sense of cosmic magic (like the kind Berninger describes tethering him to Nelson’s album) lodging itself in your heart with no signs of leaving.
A handful of tracks in the middle lazily waltz into the sunset, Berninger’s poetic imagery dancing with swirling strings and strident guitars as if soundtracking a lonesome cowboy mourning love lost while soldiering on throughout the desert. There’s a bit of Nick Cave in ‘Loved So Little’, and Gail Ann Dorsey – who worked with Berninger on the National’s ‘I Am Easy To Find’ – lends ethereal vocals to the spellbinding ‘Silver Springs’.
However well Berninger masters the feeling of marrow-deep loneliness (most piercing on the confessional growl of ‘Oh Dearie’ and the epic scale of ‘All For Nothing’), his initial ambition to make an album of covers, which then led into him working with a rich foray of collaborators on ‘Serpentine Prison’, shows that the artist is at his best when working with, and for, other people. Only someone so tuned in to human emotion could write with such empathy, could excavate hope – and, yes, tenderness and optimism – in times of such solitude. He turns to trumpets, trombones, harmonicas to bring his ambition to life with glittering magnitude.
The title track on the album was the first song to be recorded, and now stands as an epilogue. Berninger’s baritone here is velvety and warm, singing of frustration, deterioration, nationalism, intoxication. But one line particularly glows on the verbose, existential track. “Tell me I’m not alone in this, am I?” he carefully asks. He never wanted to do this on his own, and he didn’t, really. ‘Serpentine Prison’ testifies to Berninger’s singular talent as a musician, but also his everlasting need for human connection. To honour pre-existing musical masterpieces, to make a time capsule for his own father. To make sure none of us ever really feel alone in this when tuning in to his cosmic frequencies, either.