The sign appears over Berninger’s shoulder as he video chats from the couch one early September afternoon. It reads, “MATT SCREAM AT MY FACE.”
“Everybody likes it when I get down and scream in their face,” he explains.
He can’t do much of that now, what with the indefinitely postponed tour dates and a canceled music festival that he and the National’s two pairs of brothers — Bryan and Scott Devendorf, plus identical twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner — had planned to hold in their shared hometown of Cincinnati. As the band’s primary lyricist, Berninger is partial to a metaphor and likens their past decade to an accelerating bullet train. Everyone agreed they needed to slow it down. The pandemic destroyed the tracks.
It was an abrupt stop for someone who admits to taking on too much, at one point writing simultaneously for the band, for an off-Broadway musical based on “Cyrano de Bergerac” and just for himself. With touring now on the back burner, Berninger has devoted more attention than he might otherwise have managed to readying what, at 49, marks a new stage in his career: his first solo record.
Out Friday, “Serpentine Prison” features the same heady baritone and moody lyrics that are cornerstones of the National’s brand. But without Aaron and Bryce’s complementary guitars, Bryan’s anchoring drums and Scott’s reverberating bass, the mellow sound carrying over is decidedly Berninger’s, fine-tuned by longtime producer Booker T. Jones.
“I didn’t want an indie rock record, whatever that is,” Berninger says. “I didn’t want any kind of record. I just wanted a Matt Berninger record, you know?”
Inspiration strikes everywhere, which is exactly where Berninger's lyrics end up. He bikes around Venice, where he lives with his wife, Carin Besser, and tween daughter, Isla, and emails himself stray thoughts. He stares out the window and types on Microsoft Word. Sometimes he does that in the garage, although the art womb is mainly for listening to music and smoking weed, he (maybe) jokes.
The phrase “serpentine prison” came to mind as he biked past a twisting drain pipe with a cage on top — lyrical fodder for a song about the evolving traps we find ourselves in, he thought, or maybe a name for Tom’s metal band. Similar imagery weaves through Berninger’s recollection of his Midwestern youth: the Serpentine Wall near the river boats he partied on in Cincinnati, the snakes slithering around his uncle’s old tobacco farm in Lawrenceburg, Ind.
There’s even a serpentlike effect to how a touring band travels, Berninger says, in that “everybody has to follow the person in front of them like ants or you get lost in the airport and you’ll miss the flight and the whole tour is ruined.”
“Being in a band like that, it can run your life and control you,” he continues. “So yeah, there’s some of that in there.”
Berninger and Scott Devendorf, his buddy from the University of Cincinnati’s design school, formed the National in 1999 after deciding to give music another go. (In college, they channeled their love of Pavement and Guided by Voices into a garage punk band named Nancy, after Berninger’s mother.) They enlisted Bryan and the Dessners, his childhood friends, to join them in Brooklyn, playing small shows while they continued working day jobs. Berninger left his gig as an advertising creative director amid the group’s slow-burning success, which hit its stride with their critically acclaimed third album, 2005’s “Alligator,” and dipped into the mainstream five years later with “High Violet.”
The National rode the second post-punk revival wave in New York, opening for the Walkmen during the “Alligator” era. In some ways, Berninger’s solo outing feels like a retrospective of his career. The Walkmen’s Walter Martin appears in the “Serpentine Prison” writing credits (for his work on the wistful second single “Distant Axis”) alongside frequent collaborators such as Devendorf and Brent Knopf, the other half of Berninger’s side project El Vy.
“It could have been called ‘Matt Berninger and Friends,’ or ‘Matt Berninger’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Prison,’ ” he says. “I didn’t know how to bring 10 or 12 songs from eight or nine people, how to make them all into one record. But Booker knew how to do that.”
That’s Booker of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, the R&B/soul musician and prolific producer who recruited Berninger to sing for a project back in 2011. Two Christmases ago, after Berninger and his father argued about the latter’s decision to sell the family home in Ohio, the songwriter comforted himself with his dad’s favorite record, Willie Nelson’s “Stardust,” and noticed that Jones had produced it. Something clicked, and Berninger contacted his old acquaintance about helping him produce his own covers album.
He sent Jones a collection of demos, both covers and originals. They wound up bulking up enough of the latter to make up “Serpentine Prison,” with the covers sneaking onto its deluxe edition. Speaking over the phone, Jones recalls being struck by the naked honesty of Berninger’s writing, which oscillates between fly-on-the-wall observations and deeply introspective reflection. He tells “compelling stories that you kind of have to put together for yourself,” Jones says. “He doesn’t take you for granted as a listener.”
Berninger writes in jabs and winces, of a lonely man drifting through the world. The man broods. He spirals. He yearns for the time when he “used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders.” Although the National’s work arguably transcends the “dad rock” pejorative that haunted the band for years, middle-aged turmoil is a constant.
Even with its free-flowing sound, “Serpentine Prison” largely follows suit. “All for Nothing” begins with the narrator “standing in the quicksand with a smiling face.” On “Collar of Your Shirt,” he fears the demise of a relationship: “But I can feel it getting closer/ Like summer on the edges.” His desperate ask for “One More Second,” a love song the writer frames as a response to Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” ramps up to “one more year to get back on track/ Give me one more life to win you back.”
Berninger’s work isn’t devoid of joy or his sly sense of humor, but he still had to reassure a mildly concerned Jones on several occasions that “I’ve been writing songs like this for 20 years, I’m fine.” He often names Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits as his holy trinity of songwriting inspiration and does so again, praising the fearlessness — wait, no, the bravery of their work.
“Bravery is leaning into fear. Fearlessness is insanity, you know?” he says. “I’m filled with fear. You can tell those men write their fear into their songs, and they share all of that — the ugly and the beautiful and the divine.”
Despite his own propensity for bleakness, Berninger rarely crosses into nihilism. The National’s second-to-last album, 2017’s Grammy-winning “Sleep Well Beast,” pulses with a political frustration that has only intensified since. But he clings to a sense of hope for the future, believing artists can lead through chaos with “some actual truthful vision.”
He senses that quality in the next generation, working with the occasional younger artist such as singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, 26, who accompanied him on the duet “Walking on a String” last year and was supposed to tour with the National this past spring. A fellow connoisseur of existential dread, Bridgers says that “being smart and hopeful are usually — to me, in my nihilist brain — mutually exclusive. And I don’t think that’s true with Matt.”
The National is surprisingly polarizing, with naysayers writing off Berninger's vocals as monotonous. What he lacks in range he makes up for in gusto. He exudes a frontman's charm onstage, wading through the crowd at concerts while his bandmates hold down the fort.
But he says he doesn’t think of himself as a lead singer — or a lead anything, really, given that the National, by all accounts, favors a democratic process. He goes for “artist slash songwriter,” a title he shares with the Dessners, who write the music to which he pens lyrics, and increasingly with Besser, a former poetry editor at the New Yorker who co-wrote for “Cyrano” and has contributed to the band since 2007’s “Boxer.”
Process defines the product, Berninger says, and the band’s layered sound reflects the evolving styles of five different artists. “Serpentine Prison” is sparer by comparison, more of a weighted blanket than an anvil on the chest.
“I like a lot of room to move,” he adds. “I need a simple jungle gym to go swinging around on.”
A tight timeline encouraged this simplicity, as Berninger and collaborators recorded for only a couple of weeks in July 2019. Among those who swung by the Venice studio is Gail Ann Dorsey, the bassist who spent two decades in David Bowie’s band and sang on the National’s last album, “I Am Easy to Find.” Hers was one of several female voices to temper the band’s masculinity, her soulful alto complementary to Berninger’s baritone.
Looking back at that experience, Dorsey opts for her own jungle-gym metaphor. She likens the National’s style of collaborating to the sort of “artistic playground” Bowie fostered. The challenge of working with Berninger isn’t tripping over his ego, she says, but something as literal as anticipating his phrasing when they sing together. Dorsey guests on “Silver Springs,” the only duet to appear on “Serpentine Prison.”
“Myself being more of a traditional singer, there’s a natural way you assume what a singer’s going to do — but for him, I just couldn’t figure it out for the life of me,” she says, laughing.
Berninger is the sole member of the National not to read music or play any instruments. He draws on his design background in working with musicians, grasping for visual terms, or what he refers to as “art language,” to relay a mood. Scott Devendorf, who co-wrote “My Eyes Are T-Shirts” and played bass on his friend’s record, describes him as an “overall ideas” guy who would be more likely to say something needs to sound “blue or cloudy or woolly” than, “You need to play D minor and change the tempo to 133 bpm.”
Each of the National's eight albums has a distinct personality, and "Serpentine Prison" calls back to its country-tinged debut. The same "singer-songwritery" guys who influenced the band's early era — and Berninger's writing — also shaped Berninger's overall sensibility as an artist, Devendorf says, pointing to "that talk-singing thing."
"He was always a fan of the singers who had great lyrics but weren't known for their amazing voices, more like the emotion and rawness to them," Devendorf adds.
Berninger talk-sings throughout his solo record, narrating free-associative thoughts from the nostalgic corner of his brain. Central to his writing is the question of what it means to belong, whether with a person or in a certain place (which can also mean exploring the feeling of drifting away, as he does in the National's hit "Bloodbuzz Ohio").
Against the lulling backdrop of "Silver Springs," Berninger dreams of escaping from the Midwest to the Florida town where his family used to vacation. "All for Nothing" houses a subtle nod to the Indiana farm where his older cousins told him and his sister, Rachel, about a derailed train car filled with skeletons at the bottom of a nearby swimming hole.
"Just tell me there are swimming holes in outer space/ With train cars at the bottom/ Everyone's a passenger in this place/ Heaven's in the water," he sings.
Sitting in the garage, Berninger doesn't miss that transient feeling. He's perfectly content with avoiding airports and hotels, with cutting out catered food. He likes seeing his kid.
What he yearns for is the stage. He misses squinting through the beaming lights into a crowd of people mouthing his lyrics — and then diving into that crowd, "getting spit in my mouth and other people's tears in my eyes and vice versa."
"I miss smiles, you know?" he says. "It's a really euphoric place, performing. It's hard to do it over and over again, but I learned how to really love being onstage. It took me almost 20 years to start to really love it, and now I can't. But I will soon."