“I ain’t no Leonard Cohen,” sings Matt Berninger, the lead singer of the National, towards the end of his latest album. Indeed, Berninger has gone to lengths to position his new musical detour as more playful, less dour, than his work with the National: The Taylor Swift-approved lead single, “Return to the Moon,” with its bouncy disco strut and handclap-assisted chorus, is the first song in his catalog that could remotely be considered danceable.
Despite his best intentions, however, Berninger’s latest quickly verges into territory quite familiar to longtime fans of the National. Return to the Moon zeroes in on Berninger’s tried-and-true themes of miscommunication and emotional distance, containing some of the most autobiographical lyrics of the singer’s career. Standout ballads “No Time to Crank the Sun” and “It’s a Game” recall the tender, tortured vulnerability of National mainstays like 2007’s “Slow Show” and 2013’s “I Need My Girl.” On “Paul is Alive,” Berninger tells a nostalgic coming-of-age tale about the Jockey Club, the long-defunct Cincinnati-area punk venue. “Sleeping Light” is a meditation on the small, poignant rituals of a long-distance relationship from a musician slogging through the international music festival circuit: “I’ll be right here with my hand on the phone.” Berninger sings, happy to be woken up by his far-away lover.
EL VY is a collaborative effort between Berninger and Portland indie-rocker Brent Knopf, but the album scans as a Berninger solo album – an opportunity for the frontman to explore his songwriting and persona in a fresh setting. Devoid of the crescendoing dramatics of the last few National records, the songs here simply simmer and sparkle, recalling the early pre-Boxer era before the band became meticulous studio virtuosos. He may not be Leonard Cohen, but in the absence of his longtime collaborators, Matt Berninger has never sounded more like himself.