Matt Berninger: Serpentine Prison review – National singer’s ‘orphan songs’ find a home

Berninger, with help from Booker T Jones, delivers an album of understated elegance

Serpentine Prison
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Artist: Matt Berninger
Genre: Rock
Label: Caroline

Matt Berninger’s collaborative impulse has been well served the last couple of decades, probably most fruitfully with The National. However, the DNA of Serpentine Prison took a different road, folding in Willie Nelson’s 1978 covers record Stardust, and the brilliant Booker T Jones.

Jones produced that atmospheric record, a favourite of Berninger’s, and he came to mind when Berninger wanted to attempt his own. That covers record is forthcoming, but Serpentine Prison emerged organically, concurrently, with Berninger sharing “orphan songs” that had been conceived over the years with people such as Walter Martin (The Walkmen). Jones, as producer, arranger and organist, brings a warm, discerning cohesion.

Berninger’s weary baritone is a great instrument that drifts and crashes around songs about desires and thwarted dreams. The cohesion lives in the record’s understated elegance; the muted piano and murky drums of My Eyes Are T-Shirts, the swaying, Elvis Costello-like Distant Axis, and its country cousin Love So Little. There are intricacies everywhere: the hazy sound of the organ on One More Second, the delicate piano on Oh Dearie.

His lyrics often conjure up the kind of elegiac world John Cheever wrote so well; Silver Springs is a distillation of the concept of “home” and its attendant tensions, big visions in a small town: “Don’t die, get out, run far, from home, they’ll never understand you anyway.” Take Me Out of Town begins as a kind of sea-shanty, then reveals its hand, with mournful-yet-joyful brass that suggests the conflict within our protagonist: “Swear to God I’ve never been so burned out, I’m going to lose it, any minute.”


The line between contentment and despair is crossed, recanted and revisited; there are elements reminiscent of Wilco, Aimee Mann and Randy Newman – wry, relatable songs that could soundtrack a film that Jim Jarmusch or Hal Hartley hasn’t made yet.

Collar of Your Shirt is a tender, disappointed love song that punctures the skin, with glassy electric guitar, and violin that conveys a loneliness that reaches across time periods. All for Nothing makes sadness sound inviting, or at least natural.

The title song showcases Berninger’s vocal; underpinned by sparse guitar and sophisticated percussion, amid a light touch of brass, he incants: “Total frustration, deterioration, nationalism, another moon mission, total submission, I’ve seen a vision, call an electrician” – a throughline from the epic to the mundane that creates real poetry.

In his 1930 story Expelled, John Cheever wrote: “Everything outside was elegant and savage and fleshy. Everything inside was slow and cool and vacant. It seemed a shame to stay inside.” Serpentine Prison takes us, and turns us, both inside and out.

Siobhán Kane

Siobhán Kane is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture