4AD is perhaps the perfect home for EL VY's debut album Return To The Moon, it's somewhat of an oddity as a collaboration between two established artists that seems to fit into the tradition and aesthetic of the revered record label. The National's Matt Berninger and Portland musician Brent Knopf have crafted something that's a departure, if not a radical one, from their usual output. That Return To The Moon doesn't quite deliver on the promise of the title track and first single is perhaps a flaw, but certainly not a fatal one. There's certainly enough interest to carry you through the 11 songs presented here.
That many of the initial ideas were traded between the duo at great distances over a long period as their friendship developed, places this into similar territory as The Postal Service's Give Up. The similarity between both records doesn't end there though, both avoid the many pitfalls of their detached genesis, and critically both don't push the boat too far from what you'd expect from these artists. On first inspection the title track sheds new light on Berninger's wry sense of humour coupling his baritone delivery with an unusually upbeat and breezy pop melody. If the whole record was as infectious as this, with lyrics as quirky as the opening line ("Scratched a ticket with the leg of a cricket and I got triple Jesus"), it would perhaps have been a more successful enterprise. That it descends into a darkly comic cast of characters as stark as the alien looking black and white album cover is hardly surprising and faintly predictable.
It's the second track 'I'm The Man To Be' that sets the highest bar in terms of ambition here. Berninger broadens his vocal range with a semi-falsetto performance while Knopf builds a tapestry of drums, funky guitars, and sound effects around the suicidal protagonist during his last minutes as he hangs "like a rag doll from the door". It's the opposite end of the spectrum from the opening cut, but demonstrates an inventiveness that isn't surpassed during subsequent songs. Berninger's choice of subject matter may seem rather stark, but Knopf's fever dream composition is so compelling that it captures the imagination.
The remainder of the album doesn't reach such great heights. It falls into a darker and less playful groove, which brings it into focus as an interesting, but not superior, alternative to Berninger's work with The National. He's described EL VY as his most autobiographical work, although the details and characters are fictitious. There are flashes of nostalgia such as the mentions of The Minutemen and the recurring character of Dee Dee (presumably a subtle Ramones reference), but it's unclear whether these fall into that assessment as his lyrics are often tricky to decode. Certainly the wistful 'It's A Game' and startling 'Happiness, Missouri' are highlights in the album's latter stages, but there's nothing really to rival the opening ten minutes of the record.
To describe Return To The Moon as uneven may seem unduly harsh, but although Berninger's lyrics and Knopf's music are consistently good here, rarely does the combination become electric. Many of the compositions have moments where they sound slightly detached and alien, as echoed by the cover portrait, but I'd certainly have appreciated a little more fun and colour in many of these songs to make the album reach the promise of that first single.
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