Now’s as good a time as any to remind you that the National, for all their ambitiously fragmented rock arrangements and darkly inscrutable lyrics about modern social alienation, can be pretty damn funny. Ten years ago, Alligator presented frontman Matt Berninger as a cock-swinging everyman, pumped up on comical self-regard (“I’m a perfect piece of ass”) to mask an essential sadness that no amount of birthday cakes could dispel. And their most recent album, Trouble Will Find Me, was peppered with in-jokes and wordplay, like the one about Guns n Noses and the other one about how he’s secretly in love with everyone he grown up with. Their reputation as dark and dour might not be entirely undeserved, but it doesn’t paint a full picture. In fact, their music reveals a sly sense of humor that has prevented them from becoming the Live of the 21st century, all blowhard bluster and no substance.
That aspect of the National exports to Berninger’s new side project, EL VY, a collaboration with former Menomena multi-instrumentalist Brent Knopf. The duo’s debut, Return to the Moon, delivers a few nice punch lines (including Berninger’s new haircut) with a practiced deadpan. They big-up themselves proudly on “I’m the Man to Be,” in which Berninger declares, “I’m the one in the lobby wearing the green fuck me t-shirt.” The guitars whine and crunch playfully, and the singer adds, just in case you missed it, “the green one.” It’s a weird moment, tongue in cheek but revealing; if this is the kind of song that Berninger might have written for Alligator, the intervening years have given him some perspective on his rock star self as subject. When he takes off that green t-shirt, he’s just as lonely and pathetic as the rest of us. “I couldn’t get ahold of my big sister, when I tried to call her just to tell her that I missed her,” he sings. “I called and cried to room service instead.”
Return to the Moon thrives on this dynamic between dark and light, between self-love and self-loathing. He details his own teenager music obsessions, as though his devotion to the Minutemen and the Cramps defines his entire worldview. It’s refreshing to hear a rock musician detail his own scene outside New York City, and on “Paul Is Alive,” the Jockey Club in Newport, Kentucky (once the home of Cincinnati’s underground scene but now long gone) is just as important as CBGB or the Fillmore. It’s a continuation of Berninger’s autobiographical tack from Trouble Will Find Me, except more explicit, possibly even more desperate in its nostalgia.
Which is to say, Return to the Moon sounds like a National record. In some ways, it can’t avoid those comparisons, as Berninger’s lyrics and vocals are so distinctive. He can’t—and you wouldn’t want him to—write or sing any other way. The downside, of course, is that it establishes an impossible standard against which to measure this strange and ultimately redundant side project, which has little of the invention and almost none of the risk associated with the National’s recent albums. To a degree, that’s on Berninger, for not getting enough outside his comfort zone to make this band distinctive and necessary.
But mostly it’s on Berninger, who scores these songs with the kind of canned blog rock that the National has so studiously avoided. Everything is produced to sound disembodied—not instruments that have been played, but files that have been dragged and dropped. Lacking the charge of Menomena’s best album, Return to the Moon sounds cold and inconsequential; worse, it’s predictable and safe, with no humor or self-awareness in the arrangements. Especially given the rock-historical subject matter of the songs, the music could easily draw from the well of influences Berninger is listing on “Paul Is Alive.” Nothing catches your ear; nothing has hook or weight, which means you’re left to wonder how “Happiness, Missouri” might sound with a dank Suicide death beat or how a Cramps-style rockabilly vamp might illuminate a song like “Silent Ivy Hotel.” You’ll always imagine a better band playing these songs, which might be a joke but it’s not a particularly funny one.