The National frontman Matt Berninger and Phoebe Bridgers walk into a Los Angeles recording studio. The punchline is a single (and an alternate version of it) that, while mostly remarkable because of who collaborated to make it, is a pretty good product from two very talented people.
“Walking on a String” was written and originally performed for the Netflix-released film “Between Two Ferns: The Movie.” The film contains a short scene where Berninger and Bridgers are singing the song in what Berninger described to Rolling Stone as “a honky-tonk bar in middle America,” with the proper outfits to boot. It wasn’t until a month after the film’s release, though, that the song and an accompanying video were officially released via Dead Oceans.
Berninger’s signature baritone drawl waxing some kind of angsty poetic starts us off in the first version, with Bridgers joining in and leading us into when the song really starts to pick up. Fittingly, the strings are the best part of the song save for the end, when Berninger and Bridgers get to rock out à la the National, complete with blaring electric guitar riffs and almost-shouting vocals. The song shifts a bit dramatically from its soft beginnings to its much louder end; this almost promises to be a precarious decision but it’s pulled off.
The second version has more of an Americana feel, and it’s undeniably the more underwhelming of the two. On this one, it’s Bridgers who sings the opening verse, and the lyrics are split a bit differently between the two singers. Bridgers definitely dominates this version, which is an interesting creative decision given that the first one is very equitable in terms of who gets to sing what. Where the first version takes risks, this one plays it safe — and while the outcome isn’t necessarily terrible, it’s aggressively average.
“Walking on a String” falls short less because of its actual production and more because of the expectations set up by the promise of an officially released Berninger-Bridgers duet. Bridgers has joined the National onstage before and is currently on tour with the band, but in terms of official releases, this is a first. As “pretty good” as the song may be, a first listen might leave you thinking, “Is that it?”
Calling “Walking on a String” impressive undermines the much more impressive work that both Berninger and Bridgers have produced before this. Comparatively, it just doesn’t quite make the cut. If nothing else, however, it’s an absolute delight to hear Berninger’s vocals paired with Bridgers’ gentler, but no less powerful, voice.
And hey, now the world can say it has a Berninger-Bridgers collab. That’s not a bad world to live in at all.