About 20 seconds into EL VY’s debut album, Return to the Moon, one thing becomes clear: Although that’s definitely Matt Berninger’s inimitable baritone, this is decidedly not a The National album. Instead, it’s pop. And it’s rock. And it might be a partial tribute to some never-released collection of mid-’80s power ballads.
For better or worse, this album is a lot of things.
EL VY (pronounced like “hell pie”) represents a collaboration between Berninger and Brent Knopf, the frontman of indie rock bands Ramona Falls and Menomena. In interviews, the duo have said their project is the result of a musical conversation held over the course of a decade, throughout which they sporadically sent half-finished sketches and lyrical snippets to each other while working on their other major projects. That prolonged incubation process is evident in the finished product, released last week.
Return to the Moon draws on musical influences far and wide. “Silent Ivy Hotel” is straight from the ’60s — it wouldn’t sound out of place in a “Pink Panther” movie — while songs such as “Happiness, Missouri” have a pulsing, driving rhythm more reminiscent of Bon Jovi. Throughout the album, Knopf leans heavily on the synthesizer, bringing in everything from organs to steel drums. “I’m the Man to Be” features a clip of recorded dialogue between Berninger and a woman the song’s narrator is clearly trying to seduce.
The lyrics and song titles are chock-full of inside references to rock band Minutemen, whose early ’80s popularity was cut short when D. Boon, the band’s lead singer and guitarist, died in a car accident. One of the album’s recurring characters, “Didi Bloome,” is named after him, and Didi is name-checked in the title of the very first song. But Return to the Moon will appeal most to fans of artists such as TV on the Radio, LCD Soundsystem and James Blake — EL VY’s eclectic jumble of decade-spanning influences ultimately results in a distinctly modern sound.
EL VY’s focus on exploration does come at a cost. There’s no especially well developed theme other than its characters’ dissatisfaction and general neediness. Return to the Moon begins and ends abruptly, and if The National fans are looking for an album that packs an emotional wallop, this isn’t it.
Still, the lyrics do capture some of Berninger’s standard anxieties — abandonment, his own upbringing — and reflect his love for repetition. In “Paul is Alive,” Berninger’s nods to class anxiety — in this case, he references his “sugar-coated childhood” — sound straight out of The National’s “High Violet.” He also meanders back and forth between a swaggering, sexual bravado and a more honest insecurity, just as he did in 2005’s “Alligator.” “I’ll be the one in the lobby in the collared ‘fuck me’ shirt — the green one,” Berninger says, cheekily. But then, a few songs later: “Please don’t be careless with me yet.”
There’s a lot to explore in Return to the Moon, and it’s a solid option for both the casual listener and the dedicated alt-rock music historian. Clocking in at 42 minutes, the album is a journey through a massively varied landscape — all tied together by the common thread of Berninger’s unwavering commitment to low-pitched contemplation and sexually tinged sadness.
Title: Return to the Moon
- Genre: Alternative
- Tracks: 11
- Rating: 4/5 Stars