“My eyes are T-shirts, they’re so easy to read / I wear them for you, but they’re all about me,” Matt Berninger croons over the opening notes of his debut solo album, rolling in that wine-o poet style that’s become his staple as frontman of indie heroes The National. It’s a fitting mission statement for what follows – the work of an artist at his most exposed, drawing on his external muses to really give you the truest portrait of himself.
‘Serpentine Prison’ was originally going to be a covers record, made with R&B legend Booker T. Jones, who also produced Willie Nelson’s 1978 collection of pop standards, ‘Stardust’. That record provided the blueprint for what Berninger set out to make. He was so inspired by stepping into the shoes of his heroes and living in their songs that, two weeks later, they’d finished recording 12 original songs with a host of guests – most notably David Bowie bassist and collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey.
The result is an open and timeless collection that finds the singer kneeling at the altar of classic songwriting. There’s opulence in the Americana sounds of the the yearning ‘Distant Axis’, while the Dolly Parton-inspired ‘One More Second’ really goes for a stroll with its blend of organs and jazzy rhythms over a desperate plea to stay together. ‘All For Nothing’ builds into a swooning orchestral surefire set-closer that sees him look back to childhood, and Dorsey’s regal guest vocals on the waltzing, elegantly wasted ‘Silver Springs’ is perfectly at home with the class of the rest of the record.
The album’s real centrepiece, though, is the breathtaking ‘Oh Dearie’ – a gorgeous lullaby of acoustic guitar, piano and strings atop Berninger’s baritone as its most fragile, as he sings of the crippling impact of being weighed down by depression: “Haven’t talked to no one / I don’t know in how long…Don’t get near me / Paralysis has me”. It’s one hell of a skill to lower the listener’s guard and then wrap your arms around them.
Sure, it rests in a lot of the sonic territory of The National, and this isn’t the departure that his peppy indie-pop side-project EL VY represents, but what we do have is an intimate and generous offering from one of 21st Century rock’s most prominent voices. If you’re one of those weirdos who doesn’t put their records in alphabetical artist order, then ‘Serpentine Prison’ should be filed next to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ ‘The Boatman’s Call’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’ as a lesson in stately, direct and personal songwriting prowess.
Release date: October 16
Record label: Concord