As The National sifts their way through a bit of a hiatus, front man Matt Berninger is using the extended time to step out with a new collaborative project. El VY (plural of Elvis, in case you were wondering the proper pronunciation) features Berninger teaming up with former Menomena and Ramona Falls musical whiz Brent Knopf on a collection of eleven tracks seeped in richly textured and groove-heavy electronic atmospherics more in step with Knopf’s past work as opposed to the dark and brooding musical world in which Berninger typically traffics.
While far from a completely upbeat affair, the material here is a bit breezier than what many listeners have grown accustomed to hearing emanate from Berninger’s deeply inflected vocal chords. It seems at times as though the work was a bit of a joy to undertake, a feeling Berninger himself even seems to acknowledge as he calmly stares straight into the camera on the album’s cover, his long golden locks, thick black-rimmed glasses, and white clothing standing in sharp contrast to the dark and shadowy surroundings. Knopf, also wearing white, stands to Berninger’s right with a sort of sly “look at what I pulled off” bit of self-satisfaction gleaming on his face.
There’s a good bit of sly humor scattered throughout the lyrics and definitely a whole lot of slinky, dance-worthy grooves making nearly every track sound, on the surface at least, much cheerier and sunnier than the dour nature of the material covered by The National. The title track establishes the template from the get-go with jittery guitar and snappy percussion elevating the song into dance-rock territory. “I’m The Man To Be” takes this approach one step further with a menacing beat anchoring Berninger’s nervy and sing-along vocals. It’s a fitting arrangement as the song’s narrator seems to be fulfilling the destinies of many of Berninger’s common characters. Here, he prepares for a late-night, illicit rendezvous by engaging in a little bit of um…belt-tightening. In a cool twist, the song even features the awkward introductions between the assembled parties-the clumsy narrator attempting to talk himself through his doubts while the assured female confidently enters the situation.
Narratively, this will be familiar territory for National fans; Berninger’s songs are constantly populated with average joes seeking elements of danger or entangling themselves in doings they have no business being a part of. More often than not, though, these characters end up no better for the wear as evidenced later in the album by the speaker at the center of “Sad Case” who joylessly sits alone thinking: “I’ve been wondering what to do/I’d give anything to talk to you.”
Despite the new approach, a few songs fail to gain much momentum, and instead lull themselves into a bit of National-esque complacency. “No Time To Crank The Sun” slogs along unmercifully with a bit too much electronic noodling underlying Berninger’s dreary and pitied singing. The following track, “It’s a Game” similarly trudges down a lackluster terrain playing a repetitive chorus over and over to the point of saturation. It sounds more like a National outtake or B-side void of the fresh perspective this collaboration brings to Berninger’s baritone.
In all, though, Return To The Moon brings a nice jolt of fresh perspective to Berninger’s songs, and a nice bit of accompanying publicity-Taylor Swift recently included the previously highlighted title track on her playlist of songs “that will make your life more awesome”. Knopf, the deft instrumentalist that he is, brightens the layers and muddies up the mood when necessary, pulling back the arena pomp and circumstance that at times can wear The National down. In fact, this album could use even a little more of Knopf’s touch as several tracks beg for even more adventure and less constraint. Perhaps that will come down the road as both artists claim to want to reconvene for future collaborations. This could be a smart career move for Berninger and a way for him to continue to, metaphorically this time, let his hair down.