EL VY (pronounced, as the band helpfully point out, like a bastardised plural of ‘Elvis’) consists of vocalist Matt Berninger, of indie darlings The National, and multi-instrumentalist Brent Knopf, of Ramona Falls and formerly Menomena. As with all side-project albums, comparisons with members’ established work are inevitable and must be addressed – let’s be frank: anyone aware of Berninger will be wanting to know how this project stacks up with The National’s work. Well, the good news is that Return to the Moon isn’t just a limp retread of either artist’s previous work; Knopf’s quirky, eclectic music pairs with Berninger’s distinctive baritone to form something entirely new.
The sordid and drily humorous lyrics on offer here are perhaps the best on the record: “I’ll be the one in the lobby in collared fuck me shirt. / The green one.”
The album starts fairly strongly with the title track, a jumpy number built around a sparky guitar riff; it’s immediate in ways which The National never have been, but it lacks staying power – something which could be said for the entire LP, unfortunately. ‘I’m The Man To Be’, however, is a truly strange (yet compelling) track, featuring a murky instrumental devoid of hooks of any kind. Berninger imagines himself as a stereotypically egomaniacal rock star living a life of apathetic debauchery (a characterisation far different to Berninger’s usual image). The sordid and drily humorous lyrics on offer here are perhaps the best on the record: “I’ll be the one in the lobby in collared fuck me shirt. / The green one.” Other highlights include ‘Paul is Alive’ and ‘Need a Friend’. The former, a dreamy track driven by minimal synths, has a palpable air of nostalgia – including shoutouts to indie rock royalty such as The Smiths and Hüsker Dü. The latter boasts the most anthemic moment on the album, with its refrain of “This is heart breaking, heart breaking, heart breaking!” typifying teenage angst nicely.
The album definitely suffers from front-loading, as these opening four tracks are probably the best here. Later songs suffer from wasted potential. The funk-inspired ‘Sleepin’ Light’ starts auspiciously with some twinkling keys, but doesn’t really go anywhere from there. ‘No Time To Crank The Sun’ is a muddled and overlong ballad; there’s an excellent, ‘The National’-esque song here somewhere, but it is drowned out by Knopf’s imposition of tacky synths and lacklustre backing vocals which sound like presets from a cheap keyboard. ‘Sad Case’ is the requisite ‘heavy’ song, owing to its stop-start guitar hook, which comes off as wholly uninspired, something any middle-of-the-road ‘90s alt-rock band could come up with in a heartbeat.
Berninger’s words lack the relatability, poetry and thinly-veiled sorrow of The National; Knopf’s ADD approach to music leaves the listener little to latch onto.
It’s hard not to admire Berninger and Knopf for choosing to produce something different to their earlier projects. And they do much right: Berninger’s lyrics retain their trademark quirks and wit, and Knopf’s compositions are dynamic and ever-changing. But Berninger’s words lack the relatability, poetry and thinly-veiled sorrow of The National’s impeccable catalogue. And Knopf’s ADD approach to music leaves the listener little to latch onto. He tries to do everything in one album, and it leaves many of the tracks feeling underdeveloped, containing fleeting moments of brilliance but never really ending up with any consistently brilliant songs. This all being said, Return to the Moon remains an enjoyable and easy-going listen. Fans of The National will appreciate having this to tide them over until the five-piece return with a follow-up to 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, and maybe that’s enough.