It’s hard to put my finger on it, but something’s just not quite right with EL VY’s debut, Return to the Moon. A side project of Brent Knopf of Menomena and Matt Berninger of the National, EL VY carries quite a heavy set of expectations. While I’m not familiar with the work of Knopf, The National has long been one of my favorite bands, in large part thanks to Berninger’s dry, imagist lyrics and dolorous vocal delivery. And while it’s perhaps unfair to compare the two bands, it is nonetheless telling that the moments where this collaboration works best are when EL VY sounds the most like The National.
For the rest of the album, something is afoot. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I’ll try to sum up how I feel with an analogy: listening to EL VY is like seeing a cat use the toilet. There’s nothing ostensibly wrong with it, and, in fact, there are aspects of it that are good. It’s sanitary and convenient, but there’s something unnatural about it. Watching it just feels wrong. Just because you can teach a cat to use and flush a toilet, that doesn’t mean you should. Just because EL VY can exist, doesn’t mean it should.
The awkwardness is most evident on the turgid “I’m the Man to Be”, which is the worst song Berninger has ever taken part in. I assume it’s also worse than anything in Knopf’s catalog just on principal — the song is that bad. Berninger is particularly atrocious here. A few choice lyrics: “I’m peaceful ’cause my dick is in sunlight held up by kites”, “I’ll be the one in the lobby in the colored ‘FUCK ME’ shirt — the green one”, and “Just a little sample of a sample of wet sage and rusting honeysuckle, for example.” Berninger’s lyrical stumbles are only augmented by Knopf’s awkwardly sleezy music and some awful backing vocals. The combined effect is truly off-putting: needlessly vulgar word-soup is not a good look on Berninger, and Knopf’s music makes you want to take a shower.
Berninger has always been at his best when his lyrics capture the meaninglessness of everyday life (“Racing Like Pro”) or capture emotion with incisive physicality (“Baby We’ll Be Fine”). On Return to the Moon, Berninger focuses less on concrete imagery and more on the inscrutable aural poetry of Wilco or Interpol. And while his abstract lyrics turn out more like Our Love to Admire than Turn On the Bright Lights, I at least admire that he takes risks.
Occasionally those risks are rewarded; this is not a hopeless album. EL VY hit their stride in Return to the Moon‘s middle, where “Silent Ivy Hotel”, “No Time to Crank the Sun,” and “It’s A Game” pull off the best 1-2-3 punch on the album. On the latter two, the collaboration ends up producing something that sounds like a synth-tinged variant of the National. Berninger’s lyrics finally click on “It’s A Game”, producing the album’s best line (“Didi, I just saw the wildest thing / Watched the sun walk into the ocean / Nothing I could do / Gone Before I knew”) and best refrain (“It’s a game / And I can’t wait to see you”). Knopf backs this up with nicely chiming electric and acoustic guitars, punctuated by deep synthesizer beats. The track just works in a way that most of Return to the Moon does not. “No Time to Crank the Sun” is a haunting slow-burner with some of Knopf’s best instrumentation — the middle section of the song stands out in particular.
“Silent Ivy Hotel” is the only song on the album that does something truly different and succeeds at it. Taking the form of a 1950s doo-wop stroller mixed with carnival funhouse psychedelia, Berninger’s lyrics are perfectly set off by jabbing electric guitars and surges of Hammond organ. The line “It’ll only last for a silent ivy minute” is one of the few points on the album where Berninger’s word-soup works: each syllable drips into the next, producing a perfectly dreamlike refrain. Knopf’s organ riff during the chorus stands out at the album’s most interesting moment, as Berninger sings “It wouldn’t matter whatsoever / We’ll never get together / It’s a waste of love”.
Those three songs are where EL VY really succeed on Return to the Moon. And apart from the bad (“Sad Case”, “Happiness, Missouri”) and the truly horrendous (“I’m The Man To Be”), the rest of the album isn’t that offensive. But most of the Return to the Moon simply doesn’t work. It feels like there’s an ineffable gap between Berninger and Knopf, as though each wrote their parts of the album without having heard the other’s. For some reason, Return to the Moon just feels wrong…
…like watching a cat use the toilet.