Over the past 20 years Matt Berninger has toured the world, played with The National, starred in the side project EL VY and reached critical acclaim for his work. However, he did not have a solo record on his list of accomplishments, until now. Berninger’s upcoming record Serpentine Prison is his first solo effort and we will look at the title track, which was released a few weeks ago. We see glimpses of The National, but also a new musical style that sets his solo work apart from his production collaborations with Aaron Dessner on previous records.
The track begins with a Johnny Cash American Recordings vibe as Berninger’s deep melancholy vocal flows over some stripped back acoustic guitar. The first verse firmly places Serpentine Prison within his work with The National; however, producer Booker T. Jones explodes this perception with complex instrumental layering. Gone are the percussive gun shots found in National tracks like Bloodbuzz Ohio and in their place are lush snare rubs and brass horns. Jones is known for his multi-instrumental work in iconic band Booker T and the MGs and on his track he layers horns, harmonica, organ and guitar to great effect. They give the track a warmth and spirituality, especially with the organ, which pairs nicely with Berninger’s lyrical themes. It is interesting that a song about being locked within a prison has such an expansive musical palate.
Berninger treads familiar themes of dread, regret and self – doubt; however, they take on a more personal slant as he explores fatherhood. He has an 11 year old daughter, Isla, and it is hard to not view this song from a father’s eyes. He sings about worry for his daughter during these trying times, “I walk into walls and I lay awake / I don’t wanna give it to my daughter.” I have a daughter the same age as Isla, so I can relate to Berninger’s concern about passing his anxieties, faults and pain onto his daughter unwillingly. He explores this theme further by singing about “Whatever it is / I try not to listen / Cold cynicism / And blind nihilism.”
Moreover, he explores issues of self – destruction and white knuckle coping with his references to sobriety. He sings, “You’re gonna have a pretty hard time /
Without drugs, without love” and “I need a vacation / From intoxication.” In these lyrics Berninger lays out the struggle one has managing existential anxiety and dread from “nationalism” and “deterioration” along with sobriety and everyday responsibilities. However, there is hope within these depictions of struggle, and frailty. Berninger does not say “Fuck it, go back to drugs.” he sings about the struggle and the need to remain sober for both himself and his daughter, which highlights his strength amidst the chaos.
Ultimately, it is his ability to embrace the struggle of sobriety, fatherhood and continuing to go through live within such challenging times that is the song’s strength. One can relate to the struggle, we are all going through it to some extent. It is as if Berninger is giving voice to my experience and is going through the same doubts I am. Moreover, Jones’ arrangement gives the track a spiritual warmth that never allows you to drowned in the struggle, but face it head on. Berninger muses, “Tell me that I’m not in this alone” and at one time this is both fragile and strong. In times like these we all feel alone every now and then, but we are all going through these challenges together. As Matt sings about loneliness we connect with him and feel that we can get through this together. We can make it out of our self – inflicted prisons to the other side. I love this song.
Listen to Serpentine Prison