Indie music is dead, or at least, whatever we once vaguely referred to as “indie music” doesn’t really exist anymore. Modern musicians that could once be associated with this now-obsolete breed have to turn into themselves, hiding away from the fake genuineness of the industry that the Millennials seem to enjoy so much and thriving on the genuine fakeness that they have to adopt. The genuine fakeness sells the records, builds the image of the (again, obsolete) indie rock king or queen and revitalizes that last tiny shred of what was was once interesting in the “indie” sense.
The National is one of those last bands of this dying music genus. Their highly layered, intensely thoughtful instrumentation and production matches with Berninger’s solemn musings about some sad story of the past. Or he’s drowning the listener in nostalgia. Or he’s mumbling in his monotone speech about his spiked lemonade. Eccentricity is relatable, and it’s interesting. In that small differentiator, The National collected its vehement fan base. Annie Clark (also known by her stage name, St. Vincent) has likewise weaved herself strangely into this disintegrating musical fabric. Clark holds similar lyrical and musical themes: extreme musical talent and disparaging experiences beat against an obsession with the sonically unexpected and abstract.
The collaboration of Brett Knopf, formerly of Menomena and current surveyor of Ramona Falls, and Matt Berninger of The National and their longtime artistic project, EL VY, successfully followed suit in this strange categorization. They’re fighting off the chains that bind and engaging in a display of fake genuinity to sell their art. They’re harnessing their mutually mild amounts of fame to broker just a bit of artistic expression and understanding in the duo’s brainchild, Return to the Moon. In what Berninger confidently calls a “rock opera,” the album holds only a few constants: a girl named DiDi, nostalgia, enigma, doubt and an oddly relatable struggle with masculinity.
These two old friends, Berninger and Knopf, clearly demonstrate how unintimidated they are by the constructs that are supposed to bind them: Knopf, a lesser known artist, holds fewer expectations than Berninger, a man aptly associated with solemnity and strangeness. A master of vocal monotony and skillful wordsmith, the man is an enigma who adds his aura of sadness to the usually crescendoing hymns of The National. Knopf saves Berninger from returning to this prescribed identity by replacing the detailed musicality of The National with simpler sounds of a greater variety. Ranging from weird upbeat pop songs to bass-laden rock ‘n’ roll tracks, Knopf created a landscape on which the strange imagination of Mr. Berninger paints.
The album opens with the notably joyful track, “Return to the Moon (Political Song for Didi Bloome to Sing, with Crescendo).” With quirky beats and random ascensions in musical tone and spirit, Berninger uses the song as an opportunity to make fun of himself. Lacing some of his most intensely strange lyrics, “bought a saltwater fish from a color-blind witch ’cause she said she loved it,” Berninger gives the judging listener an opposite version what they would classically expect from him: crescendos and enigmas.
Juxtaposing the pretty beginning banger is the sexiest track on the album, “I’m the Man to Be.” A grungy, pinched electric guitar sounds fill in the sonic background as Berninger’s monologue reveals the struggles of masculinity for a rockstar of his popularity. He’s confused, because on stage — where his “dick’s in sunlight, held up by kites” — but back in the hotel room he’s “crying to room service, drinkin’ Malin and Goetz under the bed.” It’s all very depressing, of course, and yet haunting. There we are, standing with Berninger in a hotel lobby, donning a “come-and-fuck-me shirt, the green one.” Building themes of the very strange and specific, the rock opera continues.
Nostalgia descends with “Paul is Alive,” the third single released by EL VY. Soft and slower crescendos and tangy guitar solos bounce off Berninger’s love song for the Cincinnati rock scene that, from this retrospective point of view, reveals the paradoxical relationship that can one can develop with their childhood: how lovely it was, but if given the chance we might go back and do it all again. Hymnals of wasted, faltering love follow, with the sarcastic “Need a Friend” and spooky “Silent Ivy Hotel.” Completed by visceral guitar sounds and painstaking one-liners, these sibling songs round off the rock-inspired portion of the opera before an air of quiet sadness descends.
The rest of the opera reveals itself as cartoonishly solemn. The descension into anxieties and sadness begins with the sonically hopeful, piano heavy “No Time to Crank the Sun.” This track, and the next two to follow, ropes the listener into the sadder, simpler and slightly boring portion of the opera. While random musical experimentations and oddities keep the album’s second half interesting, it all flounders in comparison to the opera’s first movement. “It’s a Game” and “Careless,” both lyrically dedicated to the story of Didi Bloome, aren’t as immersive or engaging as the album’s first half. Only small bits and pieces — an echoing choir or another enigmatic Berninger insight (“I don’t want to drag you into everything I ain’t no Leonard Cohen”) — make the listener stick around. The depressive listeners will always stay, for Berninger’s highly intelligent and self-deprecating musings are their religious text. An unattached listener, or the non-depressive type, has little left for them in the second half of EL VY’s opera.
By practicing in fake genuineness, artists are recognizing that the media and music industry engineers a personality, lifestyle and sound that a popular but unplaceable artist should assume. Artists involved in fake genuineness will find refuge for their art within these constructs, as Annie Clark and The National have. They bind together, foster one another’s originality and unique tastes. They’ll write about what they actually know rather than what they are supposed to know. The EL VY project is about this kind of art: a collection of odd expressions and interpretations that rest in genuine feeling or experience. Originality saves the music industry, and EL VY, from where it falters.