Wednesday, June 18, 2008

[outsideleft] Silver Jews: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way Back from Death

Silver Jews
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
(Drag City)

The last time I reviewed a new Silver Jews record, it was playing in my car and I backed over a cat in the driveway. I cleaned up the mess, took some painkillers and fell asleep on the couch. Today, I sit with Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea streaming out of my phone into a decidedly less tense situation, with humidity standing in for painkillers, drowsily playing with a new live puppy in the backyard.

Trading a dead cat for a playful puppy documents the transition from the rehab-story one-upmanship of Tanglewood Numbers to the cautious affirmations in Lookout Mountain rather succinctly. Berman still has that exhausted voice, like that of a guy who’s finally taking off his shoes in a motel room after selling encyclopedias all day, but here he stares with the curtain opens into the sunset over the motel parking lot instead of retreating into the dark crevices of a damaged soul. He’s really good at mapping those bleak places; look at the oppressively heavy atmosphere of The Natural Bridge if you want to see where he used to be, or Tanglewood Numbers if you want to see what happened when he slipped over the edge.

Lookout presents a less oblique artist, bravely trying to express his new philosophy against the crickets and twang on “What Was Not But Could Be If” which fails as a manifesto of reconciliation, but succeeds as a portrait of those who attempt such declaration – when failure’s got you in its grasp, and your reaching for your very last, it’s just beginning. The transformation of escape from escapism is the thread that feeds through the album: “Aloyisius, Bluegrass Drummer” is a rollicking tale of love among the lowlifes that ends horribly, with Aloyisius darting out as fast as he can. “The Pillow is a Threshold” denies the tether the damned have with a bad situation – I throw my thoughts like Tomahawks into a world which I disown. The delicious downer tone of this song points to the old train wreck Berman in which many listeners found solace, which is a welcome return after the filigree of Tanglewood. The production on Lookout is still elaborate, but subdued, allowing the stories to take center stage.

And, like any conversation with a recovering lowlife, there are great stories. “San Francisco, B.C.” is a hilarious Tarantino ride through a drug deal gone really bad involving many characters like his girlfriend who after her dad had been beaten to death, she became a martyr in the vegan press and a drug dealer’s stepson Gene in which he gets embroiled in a botched robbery – try to be his friend, he’s got a friendly side. The musical accompaniment is picture perfect, trotting like “Memphis, Tennessee” - I'll bet the cover by Silicon Teens is in Berman's tape case somewhere - punctuated by casino rattle and the clink of glasses. This song is a masterpiece of noir humor, stepping into and back from the narrative.

What Berman has thankfully done is cleaned up his act – Tanglewood Numbers was a response to surviving a crack and Xanax suicide attempt – but can still find beauty and humor on both sides of the fence. “Candy Jail” is a dense twanger built on piles of candy references that I am guessing refers to the immediacy of the life he lived not so long ago, its appeal and availability. It’s unclear whether the jail is addiction or sobriety, and maybe that’s the point. This ambiguity continues on the punctuation point on this record, the lovely “Party Barge” where he details his background and how he chopped down this weeping willow tree and built this party barge. The barge he crates out of his sadness is being a mess, is recovering, and is ultimately being himself.

I know it’s a common fallacy to read one’s art as strictly autobiographical, as well as sensationalize an artist’s predilections and personal history, to conflate the singer with the song, but with Tanglewood and this record, it’s unavoidable. David Berman speaks with such unflinching intimacy that makes you want to believe his songs, and maybe that’s what happened to him. Whatever he is - noble survivor, big liar, jackass addict, sadsack poet - David Berman is a hell of a songwriter who has ahandle on life's conflicting dimensions, and those are themselves a dying breed. I'm glad to have at least one still kicking around.


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