At their best, side projects are an appealing prospect for both artist and fan. They offer glimpses of a songwriter’s vision outside the confines of their primary group. In the case of an act like The Postal Service, the parties involved were able to reach a huge audience while simultaneously stretching their artistic legs. When they don’t quite work, these groups can feel like mere recreation, more fulfilling for those involved than the listener. EL VY is the long distance brainchild of vocalist Matt Berninger of indie rock royalty The National and Portland-based producer Brent Knopf of Menomena and Ramona Falls. These two skillfully avoid the common sideband pitfalls on a collection of songs which should surely appeal to fans of their other endeavours.
Return to the Moon kicks off with an immediate classic in the form of its title track. Here, Berninger and Knopf pool their ample talents to create a work of astonishing beauty. Avant-garde wordplay, Station to Station worthy synth pads and a sense of world-weary dandyism coalesce into a sound that demands repeat plays. We are introduced to themes, both musical and lyrical, which will reappear throughout the album: space, melancholy, vintage keyboards, hetero-masculine vulnerability. This is the sound of urban loneliness on top of a skin-tight rhythm section. Swoon.
The immediate touchstones are glitter rock and British pop. Echoes of Bowie, Jarvis and Bryan Ferry flutter across the soundscape. “I’ll be the one in the lobby in the collared fuck me shirt/The green one”, a line from the brash track ‘I’m The Man To Be’, is pure Cocker, delivered with the same combination of self-loathing and ennui that the Pulp singer mastered around His and Hers. The decadent lounge lizard vibe continues on the Beatles-referencing ‘Paul is Alive’, over which Berninger slithers like Leonard Cohen with a little more pep in his step. The Canadian songwriter is an omnipresent influence; he is even namechecked in a lyric.
It’s clear from these opening numbers that EL VY are not beholden to the grandiose song structures and progressive rock indulgences of Berninger’s day gig. Nor are they as modest in scope as the occasionally twee Menomena. Rather, EL VY creates a moody world of lonely hearts and disco dancing. It is a place (at least according to the band’s press release), populated by composite characters pulled from the singer’s own life. Berninger is a great lyricist, able to churn out dozens of carefully considered nuggets. “I had a sugar-coated childhood/The stars were in my soup” and “Mama’s on the spectrum/Daddy’s on the borderline” are two examples of his unusual gift. More willing to concede to repetition than his heroes, Berninger is alas, occasionally guilty of driving a point home a little too vigorously. Morrissey did the same, but with a plethora of different vocal approaches at his disposal. When Berninger repeats “I can’t be alone” a dozen times at the end of the otherwise sturdy ‘Sleeping Light’, it feels more like laziness than emphasis.
No doubt, EL VY have their shtick down. The consistently mellow track beds, rich in melody and texture, reveal that studio guru Knopf has mastered the art of candlelit slow burners. And Berninger responds in kind. A sense of joy and creative freedom is palpable throughout the album. Herein lies the beauty of side projects. Slightly diminished expectations can lead to unexpected gold.
Portland-based soul singer Ural Thomas lends an air of authenticity to late-album standout ‘Sleeping Light’. “Only you can move me” sings the guest vocalist over the outro. ‘Sad Case’ introduces a rougher guitar tone and off-kilter ⅞ rhythm into the album’s already wide range of styles. It’s a gritty break from the softer palette, ending with an intentionally abrupt edit.
The record closes on a suitably dour note with the sublime ‘Careless’, a melancholy waltz which brings all EL VY’s assets together in a concise epilogue. “Didi, are you lost? A Cadillac for your thoughts” the singer asks over its unhurried groove. Berninger could be talking to us. It’s closing time and he wants to know what we think of the last ten confessionals. Then we are out of the hot seat and he’s back to playing the irresistible mope. “Don’t be careless with me yet” he pleads. The album ends with the singer cooing “It’s agony” before he and his collaborator disappear, leaving behind dim impressions of a hazy nocturnal world.