In a recent episode of Billy on the Street, the comedian Billy Eichner dons a football jersey and rounds up a pack of hooting dudes to put a fratty twist on his regular shtick of quizzing random strangers about pop culture. “Bro, bro!” Eichner shouts at a Manhattan-sidewalk passerby in a baseball cap and sunglasses. “True or false: Masculinity is a prison?” “True,” the guy replies, and the man-herd roars. Later, there’s a tailgate for Wicked.
The way that segment mocks bro-culture while also reveling in it reminds me, weirdly, of EL VY’s great debut album, Return to the Moon, out today. For a certain kind of music listener, this is a supergroup, bringing together Matt Berninger of the cult-beloved rock act The National and Brent Knopf of Menomena and Ramona Falls. If those credentials don’t scream bro! they do conjure a different male archetype: Indie rock has been shaped by all sorts of people, but in practice it has often been ruled by guys who look a lot like Berninger and Knopf. Conde Nast inadvertently gave a reality-check to the genre’s self-image as eclectic and inclusive when an exec shouted out Pitchfork’s “Millennial male” audience recently. And the conversation around Ryan Adams’s cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 offered a reminder that indie’s stereotypical mode—solemn airings of pain and alienation—has often dovetailed with the sexist notion that men’s emoting is inherently more serious than women’s.
But sometimes it seems like Berninger has conquered this genre only to make fun of it. His cartoonishly morose voice often satirizes what other singers might present as insights—the notion of fatherhood as martyrdom, or the idea that angst is intrinsically meaningful, or the claim that vanity and lust can be transcended. A lot of critics have missed this, taking the lush gloom of The National at face value, as if it were music for Brooklyn dinner parties instead of music ruthlessly about them. But EL VY makes the humor and the politics in Berninger’s words harder to miss. In place of the sumptuous rock blur of The National, Knopf builds bright, crisp, loop-based arrangements that sometimes sounds like they’re made with kids’ instruments; the songs wiggle and careen, instead of gliding. Meanwhile, Berninger seems to be working from a prompt: He’s said Return to the Moon is more autobiographical than anything he’s done before; he has also talked about it as a sort of rock opera involving invented characters.