Matt Berninger and Brent Knopf met more than decade ago during their respective bands’ covering of the West Coast club circuit – and whilst that friendship remained, it’s taken the two of them over ten years to work together. The eventual result, is an indie-rock hybrid of kaleidoscopic instrumentals and the abstract lyricism Berninger has patented with The National – operating under the title of EL VY (which is pronounced, according to the band, like a plural Elvis).
Their debut outing, Return To The Moon, takes everything that is wonderful about their separate musical efforts and arranges them into a dual sound that is both delighted and desolate. I’m The Man To Be has Berninger assume the character of washed-up artist, who blurs the lines between celebration and self-deprecation. ‘I’m peaceful ‘cause my / d##k’s in sunlight’ he purrs over Knopf’s angular guitar, whilst emphasising both the magnitude of his existential crisis – and the greenness of a particular shirt.
In Paul Is Alive, he relives his relationship with the sounds of his youth – using his mum’s Beetlemania-based life advice to reinforce an analogy about lost love. Again, it’s Knopf’s layered, multi-instrumental contribution that really allows the song to grow and take shape – under the umbrella of the Menomena and Romana Falls musician, Berninger seems care-free – liberated, even. His lyrics still carry the trademark despair listeners have to come to know and expect, but with EL VY, there’s a playfulness to the dejection. ‘Didi, I just saw the wildest thing’ he claims during It’s A Game, a woeful love song – that deals with a breakup – only this time, it’s the breakup of punk band The Minutemen.
It’s almost impossible to imagine the Ohio-born frontman without The National. Aided by the Dessenger and Devendorf brothers, he embodies the role of booze-soaked academic; rambling of love and melancholia is in his baritone whir, wine in hand, beard on face. But, with the platform Knopf’s compositions provide him – his usually covert dry wit is released – and once in the atmosphere, it’s difficult to contain. Whether it’s the synth solo in Need A Friend, or the haunting musical backdrop of Silent Ivy Hotel, Berninger comes across as freer; the professor is on annual leave – and he’s reveling in his lack of responsibility.
The album is a musical coupling of two binary approaches – but it never feels unconnected. The duo seem to wallow in the novelty of working together and the outcome is a genre-spanning work that is both thoughtfully preoccupied, yet outlandishly gorgeous. El Vy were a low-key coming-together – but Return To The Moon is anything but. It’s one of the best records of the year.