If there ever was a contender for the Year of The National Side Project, then 2020 would sit up there. Lead singer Matt Berninger has his debut solo record coming out next month, LNZNDRF have a new double album penned in for the end of the year, and Aaron Dessner made headlines for himself a few months back as a main contributor to Taylor Swift’s album folklore. And now there’s also Royal Green to add to that list, the debut solo record from the band’s drummer Bryan Devendorf.
To call Royal Green a solo record though feels a little misplaced though. Devendorf enlisted a hearty slew of friends and family to help it come to life, from sound designer Nate Martinez, to multi-instrumentalist Josh Kauffman, to some additional instrumentation from Aaron Dessner on one song. Even Devendorf’s sister-in-law contributes some spoken-word vocals at one point. The end result is something that very much feels like a communal affair, full of sounds and instrumentation from a host of sources, which lends itself well to the jangly psych-folk style it leans on. If you’re expecting the pristine contours of folklore here, then you’ll be disappointed, as you won’t find them even at the album’s prettiest moments.
And if you’re expecting Devendorf to flex his drumming skills, then you won’t find that here either. It might be one of the most surprising features of Royal Green; the percussion is all drum machines (with the occasional bit of live percussion from shakers and tambourines here and there). And yet Royal Green is no less enjoyable for that fact; the drum machines are still clattering and chattering away in curious but deliberate rhythms, so there’s no doubting Devendorf’s sense of rhythm. This is a homely record of gentle and ambling exploration, recalling the Americana vibes of bands like the Shilohs or the folkier leanings from of Montreal.
“Hallucinations” drifts by at a hazy pace, much like the title suggests. The dreamy, cloud-like floatiness of the song makes it clear that no one playing on it is in a hurry, as Devendorf’s voice goes from high to low. “Breaking the River” swims by with an acoustic shuffle and a wash of external noises, making for the kind of track you stick on as you go for an aimless wander. Brief opener “Frosty” announces itself with a flush mix of acoustic and fuzzy electric guitars before taking a pause for curious piano coda in the final 40 seconds, making for an odd sort of undeveloped mission statement. “Do you want me plain? / Do you like me frosty?” Devendorf asks, and it feels like a wry joke at the expense of the listeners expecting a particular sound from him.
If listeners expected Royal Green to sound like a National record, then they likely won’t get the reward they expected. On “Halo Chagrin”, Devendorf utters a familiar line: “Don’t look at me, I’m only breathing / Don’t look at me, I’m indiscreet,” which fans will recognise being from the slow-burning National hit “Cherry Tree”. That the foundations of the original tracks here come from a CD-R Devendorf recorded 20 years ago consisting of unused National songs, it only makes sense that sometimes it feels like you’re hearing Berninger’s lyrics through a different lens. Devendorf himself describes the songs here as an “alternate versions of B-side National songs,” and at the very least it offers a glimpse into the past of one of the biggest indie bands around.
Nestled beside these “old” songs are three covers that add to the personal charm of the album. His take on Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You” takes a few seconds of instrumental fidgeting to get itself together, but it hits a pleasing and chirpy stride when it gets there. “Baby You’re a Rich Man” turns the Beatles track into a different key, spacing out prickly textures and languid guitar fuzz over the space of six minutes. At the end of the album is a take on the Fleetwood Mac classic “Dreams”, made up of a sparse muttering of drum machines, spacey acoustic jangles, and synth squiggles. It feels jovial and light-hearted, like Devendorf is bringing his fondness for the song and the possibilities it holds to the surface, instead of just showing us what a good song it is (which we know, since it’s pretty much a timeless hit).
What listeners will get from Royal Green is hard to determine (apart from not what they expected upon hearing of the album’s existence). It’s a pleasing 35 minutes that’s best absorbed over time and not taken apart with a fine-tooth comb. Some tracks wander a little too aimlessly for too long (“What If You Are the Sick Passenger?” in particular), and sometimes all the contributed elements feel like they are either pulling against each other or just present for the sake of there being an interesting stop point (“Halo Chagrin” being the worst culprit, coming complete with a warped sample of opera and a flash of exciting, colourful synths at the end that dissolves into nothing).
Still, for an album recorded mostly 20 years ago, Royal Green feels like it captures what it set out to do. “To me it’s a time capsule, a piece of nostalgia that reflects the formative years of The National and my place in the band and also the world,” Devendorf says of the record. It feels like you’re perusing the dusty boxes of years gone by, unearthing some old tapes your parents made or listened to. But it’s mostly the sound of a band member with a hell of a future ahead of him strumming away while singing some half-formed lyrics. One does wonder if Devendorf ever imagined his life would turn out the way it did when he recorded these Royal Green songs. Perhaps another Devendorf album in 20 years might tell.