Straight-up: Bryan Devendorf is one of the best drummers in modern music. Even when he’s doing “drum programming” electronically, his ear for percussion is second-to-none. Listen to what he did with Taylor Swift on folklore, or tracks like “Squalor Victoria” by main band The National, to get a sampling of what he can really do. To hear Royal Green is to watch him throw his arsenal out the window.
This album is minimalist through and through, and it both works and doesn’t. With Royal Green, Devendorf trades his reliable fare for occasional metronomic electronics and the occasional pitter-patter of percussive restraint. He talked with NME about the kernels of these albums first arising twenty years ago. Regardless of their sparse nature, nothing feels half-cooked.
In an unconventional choice, Royal Green sports three covers: “If Not For You” by Bob Dylan, “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac, and “Baby You’re a Rich Man” by The Beatles. Sifting through the American classic lexicon, and the overall classics can be a terrible idea or a great one. In this case, it works. The covers bear little resemblance to their originals, and this is almost a necessity when you’re covering Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, and Dylan. You’ve either got to bring your A-game as a solo performer/band or choose to cover something else. Devendorf makes it work. Of particular note, he makes it work with the slightest of drum-work.
Devendorf adapted the lyrics on Royal Green from originals by a friend and rescued melodies from an old CD-R. This shows itself; there’s no lack of maturity, but this is as far from his work in The National as you can get. This had to have been at least part of the intent: a lot of people are going to listen to this because it’s “a guy from The National” (especially if these folks pay attention to the drums). “Breaking the River”, which calls in backup from National collaborator Aaron Dessner, is an album standout, with its seemingly borrowed-sound background vocals and clear-eyed harmonies. This would be great wandering-through-the-woods music, and it knows this of itself.
Royal Green stands as an experiment for Devendorf to show off his ear. There are some portions that run discordantly: “What If You Are The Sick Passenger?” only works to a certain degree. The song fights with itself, and not necessarily in a good way. As it makes its way along, it fights with its length, its subject matter, and its own instrumentation. “Halo Chagrin”, salvaged from an old National cast-off, is an album highlight (unfortunately). Starting again with something that seems like it could only be found-sound or a warped piece of sample culture, Bryan Devendorf shoplifts Matt Berninger’s baritone for just a little while, finding another unlikely spot of success. Between the funky electronic noises and the assertive percussion, it carves out a definite “best of the album” spot.
Album closers “Hallucinations” (ironically one of the clearest tracks on the album) and “Dreams” put a nice bow on the experiment. While the album doesn’t feel unfinished in any way, it does feel like an experiment. There are echoes of Bright Eyes at their best, Bon Iver at Justin Vernon’s weirdest, and some of The National’s (and, clearly, Royal Green’s) beloved Grateful Dead. The album feels like it could break into a jam at any moment. It doesn’t need to: clarity serves it well.