Photo by Chantal Anderson
Matt Berninger's Optimistic Malaise
Matt Berninger is a self-proclaimed optimist—which, given his songs, might come as a surprise. Best known as a vocalist and songwriter for GRAMMY-winning indie-rock standard bearers the National, Berninger’s lyrics are often mired in reptilian fantasy or drunken exploration; there’s a flickering television or a stiff drink, a miscommunication or a revelation. Similar malaise follows in his side projects, from the band EL VY to the score for Mike Mills’ short film I Am Easy To Find.
To harp on those examples, though, would ignore Berninger’s witty, sardonic, self-mocking tendencies: there’s nothing quite like hearing "It's a common fetish for a doting man/To ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand" or "I’m a perfect piece of ass" wedged in an otherwise morose track.
Berninger tells me he always feels optimistic, "even in the worst." Right now, he feels hopeful about America and about art, more than ever before—though "it’s probably going to get darker before it gets brighter...somehow I actually am genuinely optimistic." He points to recent releases, from Bright Eyes’ Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was to Cardi B’s "WAP" to Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters to Taylor Swift’s Folklore (produced by National bandmate Aaron Dessner) as proof that songwriting is at a peak.
"Artists I know are making their bravest most interesting, most honest work right now, and that's what artists do: when everything is chaos, they interpret the chaos," Berninger says. He adds, genuinely: "It’s not a political song that’ll change the way someone votes: a love song will."
But you can’t reckon with global issues before you reckon with yourself: that’s what Serpentine Prison, his first solo album, tries to do.
"Everything I’ve ever written—at least, the good stuff I’ve written—I’m always reckoning with myself, and that's political: reckoning with my own fears and reckoning with my own desires and my own problems," Berninger says. "Mostly, when I write, I'm just trying to sort myself out."
All the same, he calls Serpentine Prison the most collaborative album he’s worked on. Produced by Booker T. Jones (a GRAMMY-winning record producer and musician), Berninger brought in a number of artists, including Scott Devendorf, Walter Martin, Matt Sheehy, Gail Ann Dorsey, Sean O’Brien, Harrison Whitford, Hayden Desser, Brent Knopf and Mike Brewer. His wife and frequent collaborator, Carin Besser, wrote alongside him.
At first, when Berninger went into the studio with Jones, it was to make a covers album. He wanted to record songs he loved as a way to get out of his own head.
"I started sharing some originals [with Jones] that I’d written with a bunch of different people, sort of orphan songs," Berninger says. "By the time we went into the studio to make this covers record, we had more originals than covers." (The covers will be included in the album’s deluxe edition.)
The originals that make up Serpentine Prison are true to name: labyrinthine explorations of the psyche, they oscillate between pleading and desire, between dependency and assertion. Even the somewhat silly-lined opener "My Eyes Are T-Shirts" ("My eyes are T-shirts, they’re so easy to read") quickly turns into a paean ("When I see you, something sad goes missing").
The hypnotically meandering "Silver Springs" is a duet in parts; "Distant Axis" worries over timing and communication; "Oh Dearie" wallows, warning others away so they don’t get dragged down: "Name the blues, I got ‘em/I don’t see no brightness/I’m kinda startin’ to like this."
On The National’s 2005 album Alligator, Berninger sang, "I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain/It went the dull and wicked ordinary way." Serpentine Prison seizes on this image, combing through depths for quotidian answers.
In an interview with The Creative Independent, Berninger said all good songs are either about love or fear: on his title track, that fear seeps over love. "Serpentine Prison" is deeply overwhelmed and exhaused, grappling with global disaster, mental health, and identity: it’s a winding self-exploration. The song’s biggest concern? Passing on these worries and this instability: "I don’t want to give it to my daughter."
It harkens to Berninger’s hypothesis about human interaction: We’re all water, and any moment you meet a person, whether they say hello or curse at you, that affects your own water’s color. Your identity, your life, is altered; in the tiniest ways, we’re constantly changed by the touches of those around us.
"You always have to be writing about your own water, and, in doing that, you’re writing about everyone that’s made you you, and you’re writing about your world, you’re writing about your politics, you’re writing about your history, you’re writing about your future," Berninger says. "All of those things are ideas and you do manifest whatever it is, but it's all you. It’s all you, and you’re everything."