His brooding baritone has been at the heart of The National’s sound for 20 years, his febrile, audience-hugging, microphone-banging onstage presence a feature of the US band’s shows, his lyrics exploring turbulence of the human mind, of relationships, and of the world beyond.
The National are a fissile band: various members have embarked on solo projects, most notably guitarist Bryce Dessner, a familiar figure in the contemporary classical world. Now singer Matt Berninger releases his first solo album, and although many of the familiar features of his work with The National are here — the richly textured, organic sound, the voice, the fretful lyrics — this is very much its own thing.
The chief departure is in Berninger’s singing, which here is more intimate, a kind of up-close croon; indeed, he actually sings most of the time, following a melodic line, whereas with The National he often uses a more casual singspiel. The drums are often played with mallets or brushes, while strings and brass add warp and weft; flourishes such as a burst of harmonica or the glow of electric piano decorate the sound. The National are a band with broad musical horizons; this, by contrast, is inward-looking, close, almost cocooned.
This much is clear within the first few bars of the opening track, “My Eyes Are T-Shirts”: cloaked in soft drums, bright electric guitar, piano (electric and acoustic) and vibes, he croaks a typical Berningian lyric: “I hear your voice and my heart falls together/ Come back baby and make me feel better.” Next comes “Distant Axis”, which manages to combine oomph and intimacy with its powerful chorus and decorative piano trills.
“One More Second” is a touching love song that brings a familiar sound to the affair: churchy richness of a Hammond organ, played by the great Booker T Jones. It turns out that Jones is a key figure on the album: 11 years ago, Berninger sang on Jones’s The Road from Memphis album. When Berninger embarked on this solo project, he initially had in mind an album of covers along the lines of Willie Nelson’s 1978 album Stardust, and, given that it was produced by Jones, Berninger brought him on board as producer. Jones encouraged Berninger to contribute more of his own material, which ended up being a whole album’s worth. Jones’s keyboard enriches the thing, surging, stabbing and fluttering, while his production makes the album glow like a campfire at midnight.
At times, as on “Collar of Your Shirt”, Berninger pushes his voice beyond its comfort zone. Elsewhere, its careworn rumble is leavened by the voice of Gail Ann Dorsey, familiar as a bassist and vocalist with David Bowie; she adds vocals to “One More Second”, while “Silver Springs” is a proper duet between Dorsey and Berninger, Dorsey’s smooth voice decorated with clarinetty trills.
It all adds up to a collection of songs that evoke, by turns, love, warmth, melancholy and a sense of gnawing anxiety. As lockdown restrictions return in many parts of the world, this will make a fine soundtrack.
‘Serpentine Prison’ is released by Book Records
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