Matt Berninger has a distinctive baritone, and it's one that leaves fans of The National — the band for which he is the lyricist and lead singer — weak in the knees. EL VY is a side project that brings together Berninger and Brent Knopf, who plays for the bands Menomena and Ramona Falls for an album of sometimes funky, sometimes pop but always hummable rock music.
The reason this album succeeds, is it takes something familiar — that weathered baritone — and recontextualizes it, for a more upbeat album than the aching meanderings that The National is known for. That’s not to discount Knopf’s contribution to the venture, a slew of diverse beats that provide the backbone for Berninger’s obtuse, lovelorn lyrics.
Ultimately, though, the album allows Berninger’s wordplay to come together with music that is just as playful, though not always as successful. On the Beck indebted 'I’m the Man to Be', Berninger sings about a slew of issues ranging from sex to wealth to possibly autoerotic asphyxiation, all wrapped in lyrics that have to be peeled back, like an onion. That the song has a jaunty xylophone line that keeps the song firmly in sing-along territory, when in lesser hands it could keel over into maudlin misanthropy.
It helps that Berninger is a known practitioner of the deadpan and while his lyrics might not be the most scrutable or even sensible, he takes weighty topics and infuses them with levity. For example, on album opener 'Return to the Moon' (Political Song for Didi Bloome to sing, with Crescendo), the lyrics sometimes descend into nonsense but the song is essentially about waiting for a loved one to return and how life is incomplete without the narrator’s better half. For those awaiting a new National album, there’s Careless, which will tide you over, till it drops.
Both collaborators have noted that the album is an outlet to let of creative steam, away from their more successful bands. The collaboration was completed over email with snippets of songs and lyrics being exchanged over the Internet till the album reached its ready state. As a result, there is a lack of cohesiveness that can be felt during the albums lulls.
As an experiment, Return to the Moon is engaging and fleshed out. What’s remarkable is that even as an album, it manages to hold its own, never coming across as self indulgent or pompous. In fact, as an outlet for both musicians, it allows listeners to widen the lens with which they interact with both Knopf and Berninger’s other bands.