Serpentine Prison (Caroline)
Los Angeles via New York and Ohio does not a Parisian make, no matter how much black is worn, no matter how many essays by Jean Baudrillard have been added to your collection of Martha Nussbaums. Non.
And let’s be clear, the once and future singer and lyricist of The National makes no claim to the city of light or even a holiday in a chateau on the Loire. He sings in English, he feels in American. Hell, he recorded this in Memphis with one of the definers of a modern American sound, Booker T Jones.
But this album has such French vibes it has ordered a Pernod, some Époisses and dialled up season five of Le Bureau des Légendes.
It’s most obvious constituent parts are Matt Berninger’s concurrent positions as wearied, aware observer, and self-reflective, partially-crushed, confessor; his slow, intimate and measured delivery (no exclamations in the vein of Mr November here) in a baritone that sometimes arcs higher into suggestions of tension or release; and the sense that these stories are in theory minor but in practice etched themselves on the characters.
Don’t know about you but at my place those speak to a certain strand of French singer whose cigarette might be the only light in his life right now. And he’s ok with, or at least accepting of, that. Not because he’s a pessimist but because he can’t actually stop believing even as he knows the endings too well.
The kind of man who in Distant Axis sings “If only you, if only you/Would come around the distant axis/I would do whatever you wanted me to/If only you, if only you/Would come around the distant axis/I feel like I'm as far as I can get from you.”
Without the drama often assumed (wrongly) to be part of chanson but with that openness that gets beyond intimacy, Berninger’s solo record marks itself out from The National by stripping away the full heights of their orchestration and elaboration – lyrically and musically – without falling into the trap of mistaking bareness for realness.
There’s a low resonance in many songs that permeates the instrumental choices, like the humid air in My Eyes Are T-Shirts that seeps into the muffled drums and bent guitars, the hum beneath Collar Of Your Shirt out of which cello emerges like a body lifting itself out of a river, or the piano bed and lightly angling guitar of Silver Springs, on which Berninger and guest vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey complete vocal moves that feel more like elegant Astaire/Rogers choreography.
Even when the country-soul mood engulfs Loved So Little, a track where firstly strings, then organ and finally brass punch holes in the wrapping that carries a whiff of the bayou, there’s a thickening of atmosphere that closes in. And in All For Nothing, a late night/last song shuffle that surges with a dangerously optimistic rise, Berninger’s backing vocals do a Bowie-esque echo that acts as just enough of a tether to keep the mood contained.
Does it sound like there’s something of a uniformity of mood and tempo? That’s pretty right as even the title track, which closes out the album, brings that brass back for nudging rather than pushing the song along, and the organ settles over the faint harmonica to remind you that wistfulness is but a small turn of the head from sadness.
That’s going to deter some listeners who might not get past the first couple of listens of the album before deciding shorter grabs – a song or two here, a song or two later – will keep them tuned in. But like Berninger’s lyrics, the best effect comes from immersion and accumulation: you have to feel this as much as hear it.
I want to believe if he performs these songs live Berninger will be at the front on a stool, the small ensemble behind in him in semi-darkness, and we are sat at small tables marked with old wax and new tears.
I’ll take a little Georges Brassens in Brooklyn or LA. Pourquoi pas?