It always feels slightly risky when the frontman of a band as iconic as The National splits off to do a side project. It’s difficult for them to win; either the departure is too significant, in which case the crowd of baying fans (who have decided to listen to the album mainly to satisfy their desire for another album from the band) don’t find what they expected and are left underwhelmed, or else what is presented feels like a watered down version of what the original band had achieved. Perhaps this is why something feels slightly off in EL VY’s first album, Return to the Moon.
Born from collaboration between The National frontman Matt Berninger and Menomena’s Brent Knopf in 2014 Return to the Moon brings back the characteristic melancholy of Beringer’s voice, but in place of the rich accompaniment it usually receives in The National it sits beside a collection of mostly artificial sounds closer to indie pop than alt rock. Unfortunately the result of this is that the album often feels lacking in depth of sound.
‘Return to the Moon (Political Song for Didi Bloome to Sing, with Crescendo)’ is a good example of this. As an opening to the album it feels underwhelming, and its strongest elements (such as a brief refrain as the music dies down and Berninger sings, ‘I used to wait for you at the corner of Eden Park’) are those which sound like they are straight off of one of The National’s records, just not quite so successful.
Despite this, some tracks are pretty well formed. ‘Paula is Alive’, for example, although I suspect part of its success is born from similarity in tone to many The National songs. ‘I’m the Man to Be’ works well aesthetically; the bass and lo-fi guitars play well off of Berninger’s singing, which experiments with rhythm in new ways. What is created is a sound not in Berninger’s backlog, and even if the content is slightly dubious (‘I’m peaceful because my dick’s in sunlight’), it’s ultimately refreshing.
‘Sleeping Light’ is another strong example, it branches into a brand of melancholy much more simple then the orchestrated performance of The National. Here the simplicity of the music works brilliantly, the lack of depth feels vulnerable. Towards the end of the track this is lessened slightly, with the slow introduction of slightly melodramatic backing singers and over produced samples.
Return to the Moon may not be as accomplished as any of The National’s albums, but it shows glimmers of an interesting change of creative pace for Berninger and while EL VY may be struggling to escape the shadows of its creators’ main endeavours, it compliments its founders’ discographies well.