Brooklyn based band The National has become one of the most important and influential bands in modern indie rock through the creation of a distinct sound. Vocalist Matt Berninger channels his personal anxieties and fears into lyrics that are at once highly intimate, yet universal. Through his poetic articulation, the listener finds their own deepest fears come to life in a rich catharsis. Grand, luminous and stately, the music of the band articulates Berninger’s rich emotional world, and turns one man’s philosophical musings into powerful anthems. The National’s musical template, defined by intricate instrumentation and a layered sound, is an ideal match for Berninger’s distinct baritone voice and dark, abstract lyrics.
Because The National has had such success with their distinct sound, some have complained that the band is resistant to change and experimentation. EL VY, a collaboration between Berninger and experimental musician Brett Knompf of the band Menomena, is an answer to that challenge. On their debut album, Return to the Moon, EL VY take the themes of alienation and loneliness, that have defined The National’s music, and put them in a stranger, more experimental context.
If The National employ a similar structure for most of their songs, EL VY does exactly the opposite. The album has no consistent musical style, it’s ever shifting. The opening track “Return to the Moon” is full of spunky disco grooves and electronic drums. Berninger’s typically morose and abstract lyrics find new life in the context of a danceable indie-pop song. “Return to the moon, I’m dying,” he sings in the chorus dryly, with clean, sparkling guitars in the background. The juxtaposition of moods in the song is highly engaging. The song “Silent Ivory Hotel” also employs musical elements highly distinct from that of The National. The organ on the track sounds like it comes directly from a 1950’s horror movie, and Berninger is backed up by howling, ghost-like vocals. This shifting of styles proves to be both a positive and negative attribute of the album. While it keeps the album engaging, it also prevents EL VY from sticking to and developing a consistent signature sound.
The wider musical pallet provides Berninger with a license to experiment more with his lyrical choices. Although they still deal with the anxieties of everyday life, the lyrics on the album are much stranger, and often more humorous, than those one would find in The National’s music. On the album’s second track “I’m the Man to Be,” Berninger takes his sexual frustration and anxiety to an absurd, comic degree singing “I’ll be in the lobby in the collard ‘f*ck me’ shirt, the green one.” On the song “Paul is Alive,” Berninger brings together scattered, confused, and sad images of his youth, singing “I’m sitting outside the Jockey Club/Crying in my 7-Up/I could hear Hucker Du and The Smiths/The Sluggos, The Cramps go bup bup bup bup inside.” Free from the more restraining aspects of The National’s style, Berninger seems to feel he is able to be even more surreal, abstract and evocative.
All in all, Return to The Moon is a highly engaging piece. Knompf’s experimental attitude allows Berninger to go into uncharted territory as a lyricist. Hopefully, The National will embrace the spirit of boundary pushing that defines this project on their next release. To do so will only propel one of alternative music’s most important groups to even greater heights.