If Serpentine Prison emphasizes Berninger’s weaknesses, it also resoundingly reminds us of his strengths. Because I was obsessed with Radiohead long before I was obsessed with the National, I’m compelled to compare this album with Thom Yorke’s solo discography, which also nudged a frontman’s uncut essence into darker, less accessible corners. Those heavily invested in the dude’s main band will find a lot to like but will also come to value his bandmates all the more. Casual fans of the National may be bored by Berninger leaning into the band’s slow, downcast side without providing the usual catharsis to balance it out, and skeptics will surely dismiss the album as par for the course. I’m not about to harangue those people about giving Serpentine Prison a chance; I’d rather exhort them to revisit Trouble Will Find Me and see if they aren’t blown away. But if recent history is any indication, new layers of beauty may emerge over the years, and somewhere down the line I might end up evangelizing for Serpentine Prison too.
It is interesting to consider this album alongside The National’s work. I liked Berninger’s point about ‘splinters’ in his interview with Andrew Ford that come back together.