When a member of a well established band branches out to perform solo material, their reputation is at stake. They are bound to draw an audience based on their name recognition alone, but there is always a question mark over whether they are able to produce an album that convinces this ready made audience, one that they have worked hard to cultivate with their core project. Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien faced the negative side of this equation earlier this year when he turned round a well produced but poorly composed slice of cheesy contemporary folk and alternative dance – a confusing mix from an artist we typically only hear in comfortable and confident form. I got the impression from the teaser singles to Serpentine Prison that we were in safer hands with The National’s Matt Berninger who, as the frontman of that group, does not have the same task of reinventing or establishing his sound.
Serpentine Prison is a continuation of the cool chamber pop we are used to from The National, though it is clearly simplified and stripped back. The advantage of this approach is that you get a focused, singular vision which shines a light on the qualities of the finger-picking, singing and songwriting. The disadvantage is that Berninger can’t take advantage of the oomph that the band usually provides across the record. You are presented with an LP which, in terms of energy, is designed to be more flat. The National’s 2019 LP I Am Easy to Find was already paired back but also sonically more adventurous, with gently experimental production and the incorporation of new elements such as choir singing. Whilst the crop of songs on Serpentine Prison are not under-cooked, less voices has resulted in less development. There is an awful lot of pressure on Berninger’s small number of components to be intriguingly written and exceptionally delivered – something he only partially delivers on.
There is a hazy, slow paced approach throughout this record. Berninger wants you to reset and take your time when listening to it. ‘Distant Axis’ stands out in the way it pushes the performance into a hopeless, romantic space. The dampened percussive thuds and reverby chimes succeed in elevating his voice, particularly as he changes key in the chorus, making his vocals more optimistic. This is not the only successful chorus, the unexpected pop vocals and emotional organ synths dramatically improve ‘One More Second’, the verses of which are severely lacking in direction and purpose.
In fairness, even the most forgettable numbers, such as the lethargic and stilted ‘Silver Springs’ are well accomplished and listenable. On ‘Oh Dearie’ the performances are pitch perfect, but the song is dreadfully dreary, bordering on boring. It is sad to hear someone as charismatic as Berninger consigned to background listening. ‘Take Me Out of Town’ finds him doubling down on this mid-tempo, pleasant, composed and comatosed vibe. By the time you reach the title track, a gentle pop single which was saved for last in the track-list, it is a sweet relief to hear something that stands out from the rest of the material. It is the highlight of the LP’s poor second half.
Unlike Ed O’Brien’s solo effort from earlier this year, Matt Berninger’s is not a complete disaster. If you are a fan of The National, there are several enjoyable and recognisable features you will hear across this LP. It will especially reward patient listeners who want to wallow in the vibe of the music. Unfortunately for me, whilst it is listenable, outside of the singles it doesn’t deliver anything all that exciting.
Serpentine Prison is out now on Concord Records.