It took time for Matt Berninger to come out of his shell. His early days fronting The National were littered with awkward gigs at which the gawky young singer would down red wine for his nerves, keep his back to the crowd and struggle to hit the high notes. But starting with 2005’s ‘Alligator’, one critically acclaimed record followed another and a new man emerged. By 2013’s ‘Trouble Will Find Me’, Berninger, with his hip beard and specs, had become one of the most charismatic frontmen on the planet.
It’s this cultivated rock star persona and its laughable improbability that Berninger examines in his new collaboration with Portland scenester Brent Knopf, EL VY (“pronounced like a plural of Elvis”, apparently). Through startling self-awareness, surreal wit and a knack for bringing the listener in on the joke, he basically positions himself as the Stewart Lee of indie rock frontmen.
Case in point is ‘I’m The Man To Be’’s strung out, hungover funk: described by Berninger as being about “a pathetic self-aggrandising rocker alone in a hotel room”, it shares conceptual ground with the Shropshire comic’s routines about stand-up comedians. Here, the singer’s irony-laced references to his “green collared ‘fuck me’ shirt”, “Louis Vuitton tie” and masturbation habits illustrate his disdain for the celebrity lifestyle, but hint at his own feelings of hypocrisy too. This snake doesn’t quite eat its own tail though. On the gloopy electro-gospel of ‘No Time To Crank The Sun’, Berninger is sincere, seeming full of regrets over the distance fame creates: “If I wasn’t so gone completely / This would feel like pain”.
Not that Knopf’s meticulously layered musical contributions to EL VY should be overlooked. Evangelists of The National’s sorrowful dusk ballads will be wary of the afrobeat-lite title track, but fans of Menomena, the brilliantly inventive art-rock band Knopf is best known for, will find lots to love in ‘Paul Is Alive’’s sparse, springy synths, the claustrophobic crunch of ‘Sad Case’ and the brittle post-punk of ‘Happiness, Missouri’. Together, EL VY create an enthralling musical space where Matt Berninger can explore the idea of being Matt Berninger.