Matt Berninger Is a Master of Gloomy Beauty on ‘Serpentine Prison’

“I’m near the bottom/Name the blues, I’ve got ‘em,” the National frontman Matt Berninger sings on the delicately despondent “Oh, Dearie,” from his debut solo LP. It’s a song about being completely asphyxiated by fear and doubt — certainly a message for our times. But don’t call the crisis hotline just yet. The music is more reassuringly cozy than last-ditch dire, with the singer pouring his enveloping, care-worn baritone over softly illuminating piano and a “Dust in the Wind” acoustic figure. The sound is par for the course for a guy whose band has often specialized in pairing depression and anxiety with artfully pleasant indie-rock. By the time he arrives at the slight lyrical twist, “I don’t see no brightness/I’m kinda startin’ to like this,” you’re almost ready to curl up next to him in his warmly welcoming shame shed. 

After spending the last couple decades as one of 21st century alt-rock’s longest-running success stories, the National have spent this year on a break (the most significant product of which has been Taylor Swift’s Folklore, produced in large part by the Natties’ Aaron Dessner). Yet if Berninger ever had interest in making music outside his band’s smart, sad safety zone, he doesn’t show it here. Matt’s not just a member of the National, he’s a fan too, using his time off to reinforce how much he loves his band’s sound, while adding his own polite, subtle decorative innovations. Serpentine Prison was recorded with Booker T. Jones, a Memphis soul great who has produced albums by artists from Bill Withers to Neil Young to LeeAnn Rimes. In keeping with National’s collaborative spirit (their last album, 2019’s I Am Easy to Find, had dozens of guests), Berninger made the record with the help of friends and peers like Matt Barrick and Walter Martin of the Walkmen, National bassist Scott Devendorf, and Andrew Bird. The result is a set of forlorn ballads that start spare and gather beauty as they grow. 

The troubled romantic plea “One More Second” evolves from Nick Drake-y benediction to tight, tense shuffle, garlanded by Jones’ Hammond organ playing. On “Silver Springs,” Berninger duets beautifully with Gail Ann Dorsey, a veteran of David Bowie’s later-era bands. “Distant Axis” recalls somber Bruce Springsteen in its anthemic solemnity, building a lavish orchestral structure atop a spare, driving acoustic bed. The strongest moment is “Take Me Out of Town,” a piano ballad that has the heartbroken beauty of the National at their most transporting.  

Berninger doesn’t try to replicate the National’s sleeker rock moments (songs like “Careless,” from 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, or “Day I Die,” from 2017’s Sleep Well Beast). The slower, stretched-out songs and rich arrangements make for an fitting backdrop for his bleak, bleary crooning. An album of depressed songs like this runs the risk of becoming boring and indulgent, and there are some sleepy passages, but Berninger has always helped himself out by performing his why-me glumness as a joke he’s self-deprecatingly in on — “standing in the quicksand with a smiling face,” as he puts it on “All For Nothing,” a particularly lovely moment. 

In a similarly over-the-top vein, he also has a Morrissey-ish knack for making his goofiest imagery some of his most memorable imagery: “My eyes are like T-shirts/They’re so easy to read/I wear ‘em for you, but they’re all about me.” That line certainly isn’t as graceful as the music he’s singing over, but its clunkiness makes the sentiment hit home, reflecting the awkward, vulnerable haplessness of real-life intimacy. It’s the work of an artist who has all but invented his own uniquely affecting idiom of overwrought overreaching.