Sunday 25 March 2018

What the National's frontman did next

Intimate gig: Matt Berninger takes the stage at Vicar Street as part of his engaging side project EL VY
Intimate gig: Matt Berninger takes the stage at Vicar Street as part of his engaging side project EL VY
John Meagher

John Meagher

The venue was the Iveagh Gardens, not far from St Stephen's Green in the heart of Dublin. It was a fine July evening in 2014 and all was right with the world. The National were in town and they were playing out of their skins.

The New York-based, Cinicinatti-raised quintet had already taken their sixth album Trouble Will Find Me to Ireland - with shows at the 3Arena and Cork's Live at the Marquee the previous summer - but the Iveagh Gardens gig was on a whole new level. In all, they played 26 songs, and they left the crowd with an appetite for more.

Matt Berninger, the band's enigmatic and charismatic frontman, was in the form of his life that night. He brought a visceral energy to the stage that appeared even more heightened than normal. You couldn't take your eyes off him, whether he was getting lost in the moment of a frenetic 'Don't Swallow the Cap' or leading the crowd into the an emotive rendition of closing song 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks'.

He returns to these shores tomorrow, to a sold-out show at Dublin's Vicar Street, for a much more intimate gig than we've been used to of late. And he will play Ireland for the first time without the Dessner and Devendorf brothers, his National bandmates and co-founders. Instead, he will showcase the engaging side project, EL VY, that he debuted this year.

A songwriting union with Portland, Oregon musician Brent Knopf - formerly of alt-rock curio Menomena - EL VY (it's pronounced like the plural of Elvis) sounds like a more playful version of The National. Berninger and Knopf released debut album Return to the Moon at the end of October and while it would be foolish to argue that it's as essential as any album the National have released since 2005's Alligator, there are some fine songs present - and, much like Berninger's main band, ones that reward repeat listening.

I was underwhelmed when I first heard the album and gave it a lukewarm review, but it says something for Berninger's ability to fashion songs that stay with you, that I've returned to it time and again. Now, it's grown into an album I listen to a lot and as a stop-gap between Trouble Will Find Me and the next National album, likely due late next year or early 2017, it will do very nicely indeed.

Knopf's input shouldn't be underestimated. There's a nimbleness to the music that's appealing - not least on the spacey title track which opens the album - while the synth lines on the perky 'Need a Friend' provide an odd, but beguiling, counterpoint to Berninger's baritone.

Meanwhile, on lead single 'I'm the Man to Be' we find Berninger singing a cheeky line that few could imagine on a National album: "I'll be the one in the lobby in the green-coloured f*** me shirt." Not that Berninger hasn't written about sex before. Who could forget his striking words from 'Karen' a decade ago? "It's a common fetish/ For a doting man/ To ballerina on the coffee table/ C**k in hand."

"This record is more autobiographical than anything else I've written, but the details aren't true," he said at the time of the album's release. "It's written in the voices of a few invented characters, composites of different people - myself, my wife, and other people I was thinking about."

The pair have known each other for a years and when it came to making this album, they shared songwriting duties. "I never worried about sending Matt something unfinished," according to Knopf. "He's able to imagine where it can go. He can grab the four bars that will become the core of the track and develop them into something amazing." And Berninger certainly lived up to such high praise on the album's standout 'No Time to Crank the Sun', a gorgeously tender ballad that could comfortably sit on any National album. (There's a particularly lovely live rendition of the song from Belgian radio station Studio Brussel you can find on YouTube.)

Interestingly, the album's liner notes credits Berninger's wife Carin Besser with additional lyric writing. Besser, a former fiction editor at the New Yorker, has provided backing vocals on a number of National songs and aficionados will remember her from last year's compelling Mistaken for Strangers documentary made on the band by Berninger's brother Tom.

Incidentally, Berninger is not the first National to start a side project with a Menomena member: earlier this year, Bryan Devendorf teamed up with Menomena's Danny Seim on Pfarmers. They released an experimental album, Gunnera, in May that won't turn the world on its axis but is not nearly as self-indulgent as you might imagine when two drummers get together.

Meanwhile, Berninger has described songwriting sessions for a new National album as "very f***ing amazing" and the band showcased a new song 'Roman Candle' in Los Angeles in October. As one of the most consistently strong songwriters of his generation, it's likely to be worth the wait.

l Tonight, Vicar Street hosts one of the most gifted Irish performers of recent years. Jape - fronted by Richie Egan - released an excellent fifth album, This Chemical Sea, at the start of the year and was a constant on the Irish festival scene during the summer. The Dubliner would probably hate the description, but he's become something of a national treasure.

The album is bound to be among the 10 nominees for the Choice Music Prize for album of the year to be announced on January 6.

He is the only act to win the prize twice - for his two previous albums, Ritual and Ocean of Frequency. But he'll really be up against it this time, and the prize is likely to go to either Villagers, another former winner, for their hyper-literate third album Darling Arithmetic or Dublin no wave revivalists Girl Band, who thrilled many this year with their dissonant Holding Hands With Jamie.

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