Having been friends for a good 12 years now, it was only a matter of time before Matt Berninger (The National) and Brent Knopf (Menomena) finally got around to making an album together. EL VY is the result of the pair’s long term dalliance and the whittling down of around 450 demo ideas, which seems, on the surface at least to be a pressure release for Berninger and a chance to indulge in a little fun.
Of course the problem Berninger (and indeed any project that he puts those vocals to) faces is that his voice is so well tied to his main band, that many of the songs on Return To The Moon sound as if they might well be slightly wonky offcuts from The National. Even the knockabout haunted house, Halloween tune Silent Ivy Hotel, which is somewhere between People Are Strange and The Monster Mash, is given a sorrowful edge by his darkened croon. The title track opens the album, and Knopf does his best to keep things light utilising a tight and funky guitar line and a skipping drumbeat. Berninger’s peculiar lyrics take on politics and marry them to imagery that wouldn’t be out of place in a rambling Lewis Carroll poem. Yet as playful as his words are, there’s always that sense of sadness that creeps into his delivery.
It’s a tone that is perhaps more appropriate on Paul Is Alive, a song that addresses his childhood in fairly nostalgic terms. The rumination on seizing the day and making the most of your opportunities he sings of musical influence on his mother (The Beatles) and of sobbing into a 7UP outside the Jockey Club whilst The Smiths and Husker Du play inside. Knopf’s accompaniment is playful and quite beautiful, giving these memories (even the sad ones) a touch of glitter and wonder.
It’s these youthful moments, where the soundtrack to your life is the most important thing in the world that Berninger returns to for It’s A Game, where he equates the loss felt at the death of D Boon and The Minutemen with the trails of later life. Unlike Paul Is Alive, there’s none of the sparkling flourishes that elevate the song, this is pain writ large. I’m The Man To Be finds Berninger in more playful mood mocking mood. A driven funk track, it frequently cuts back and forth between outright confidence (“I’ll be the one in the lobby in the collared fuck-me-shirt, the green one”) and paranoia. There’s humour here but it’s dark. It’s a possible wanking adventure gone wrong, it’s a dig at Pitchfork style reviews (“I score an 8.6 on a fucking par 4”), and it’s about not having to bother because reputation gives a free ride. A free ride is not something that El Vy is likely to get however, because as good as some of these songs are, there’s a fair few clunky attempts too.
These moments are bunched around the end of the album, with the disjointed and somewhat lumpen Sad Case seguing into Happiness, Missouri. Both are underwhelming and suffer from any cohesive melodies or any notion of a hook. Only the stabbing guitars at the end of Sad Case suggest any passion. Careless wraps the album up in fairly inconspicuous fashion, something that’s surprising given Berninger’s agonising over a relationship. There’s no Mr November style explosion of emotion, just a weary kind of acceptance. When Berninger sings “It’s agony” it really doesn’t sound like it; instead, you’re left with a sense that he could perhaps have given a little more. Not giving a little more is a problem that hangs over the end of the album, and for some of the more rabid fans of The National it’s something that they’ll consider a problem for the entirety of Return To The Moon. There are some bright and poignant moments here though, but, like the majority of The National’s work, the depths of the album may take a while to become apparent.