Nashville in the Meantime 

Rejuvenated indie-rockers Silver Jews release expansive new album

In pop music, the only thing that takes more work than self-reinvention is failure.
In pop music, the only thing that takes more work than self-reinvention is failure. Determining the dividing line between the two can be difficult, since an artist’s radical change of course can mask deep insecurity about his or her previous work. Those artists who acknowledge failure and contingency, and who possess the courage to judge their past without bitterness, might not always produce immaculate work, but self-reinvention is no less noble with a little mess attached. Tanglewood Numbers, Silver Jews’ first record in four years, finds songwriter and singer David Berman in sympathy with “the poor, the fair and the good,” even as he acknowledges that life might not get more profound than “fast cars, fine ass.” Grimly funny, and too direct to be gnomic, Berman’s lyrics combine punk humanism with what can only be called a religious sensibility. And similarly, Tanglewood’s music is at once ready-made and twisted, static and rocking, for perhaps the most realized accompaniment of his career. Tanglewood Numbers, Silver Jews’ first record in four years, finds songwriter and singer David Berman in sympathy with “the poor, the fair and the good,” even as he acknowledges that life might not get more profound than “fast cars, fine ass.” Grimly funny, and too direct to be gnomic, Berman’s lyrics combine punk humanism with what can only be called a religious sensibility. And similarly, Tanglewood’s music is at once ready-made and twisted, static and rocking, for perhaps the most realized accompaniment of his career. A Nashville resident since 1999, Berman recorded Tanglewood Numbers here with a lineup that includes drummer Brian Kotzur, keyboardist Tony Crow, former Pavement members Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, and, on vocals, his wife Cassie Berman. (His first Nashville record, 2001’s Bright Flight, was done without Malkmus and Nastanovich, with whom Berman started Silver Jews in the late 1980s.) “These are the people I know who play music,” Berman says. “I don’t know that many musicians, and I don’t play live, so I don’t have allegiances, and I don’t do collaborations.” But on a record packed with superb musicianship, Malkmus’ atmospheric and sometimes creepy guitar lines are an uncanny emotional correlative to Berman’s lyrics. “He’s my favorite guitarist,” Berman says, “and it’s good for him to be able to sit back and not worry about writing the songs.” Written after Berman emerged from rehab, the tunes on Tanglewood represent a turning point for him. “I just live more competently these days, and I got to restart,” he says. “The other albums are like art objects, and they’re addressed to one person. But this record seems addressed to many people.” Songs like “K-Hole,” with lines like “ ‘Closed’ sign swinging in the window of the liquor store / Better get inside the kingdom and close the door,” circle around his drug and alcohol problems without wallowing in self-pity. Indeed, Berman seems sanguine about his past. “[Silver Jews] were never the flavor of the month,” he says. “We were never the cherished band. We never really mattered to big groups of people.” This might have been due in part to the widespread perception that Silver Jews were a Pavement side project, but Berman’s lyrics and his sometimes shambolic music weren’t always in tune with the 1990s. “When Neil Young and Bob Dylan were young, they were trying to sound old,” Berman says. “One thing I did not like in the ’90s was its infantilism, the rock bands like Nirvana who were like a giant screaming baby.” He confesses admiration for songwriters like Roger Miller, Bobby Braddock and Bill Anderson, as well for artists as disparate as Charlie Rich and John Oswald. Earlier Silver Jews albums were a mixed bag. 1994’s Starlite Walker came across as arty, a bit self-indulgent. The Natural Bridge, from 1996, was more assured musically, and the lyrics were some of Berman’s funniest. “Dallas” asked, “How did you turn a billion steers / Into buildings made of mirrors?” And a good joke anchors “The Frontier Index”: “Boy wants a car from his dad / Dad says, ‘First you got to cut that hair’ / Boy says, ‘Hey dad, Jesus had long hair’ / And dad says, ‘That’s right, son, Jesus walked everywhere.’ ” By the time of 1998’s American Water, Berman had perfected a style that was casual but specific, as on the modified blues “Federal Dust.” With its aside about “suburban kids with biblical names,” the bighearted “People” showed Berman at his most empathetic, and if “Federal Dust” seemed Pavement-like in its coupling of “in South Dakota” with “here comes the coda,” the coda was a good one. Bright Flight was a country-flavored celebration of Berman’s move to Nashville, and one of his most affecting records. “Tennessee” works in a corny pun—“You’re the only 10 I see”—and celebrates Music City as “the land of hot middle-aged women.” It’s hard not to smile when a songwriter pulls off something as potentially hackneyed as, “I’m gonna live in Nashville / And I’ll make a career / Out of sad songs and getting paid by the tear.” With cover images by the great Memphis photographer William Eggleston, Tanglewood could be described as a pan-Tennessee record. The front cover photograph, taken in the Memphis area, features busts of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. sitting on a shelf above a liquor-store cash register, while the back photo is a shot of Chattanooga. The music reflects this expansiveness; the arrangements are fuller and subtler than anything Silver Jews have done in the past, yet the velocity, and the sense of abandon, are often more Memphis than Nashville. Where previous records often substituted verbal brilliance for fully formed musical ideas, Tanglewood is a true synthesis: it can be enjoyed as pure artifice, yet the lyrics reveal something new with every listening. “Tanglewood Numbers has an arc, from the gutter to this neutral point at the end,” Berman explains. “The first few songs are downbeat, then the record becomes friendlier and lighter in the middle. The songs and the production had to reflect the temper of the times. I needed to have greater range between desperation and release.” The album’s opening track, “Punks in the Beerlight,” seems to be about Berman’s dark night of the soul when he sings, “Where’s the paper bag that holds the liquor / Just in case I feel the need to puke.” The closer, “There Is a Place,” juxtaposes a lyrical instrumental passage with Berman shouting, “I saw God’s shadow on this world!” “Animal Shapes” has the feel of a sophisticated children’s song. Its line about “the signs that line Charlotte Avenue” sounds natural coming from a guy who says he loves living in Nashville. “One thing that’s cool about this city is that here, being a songwriter is a noble profession. It’s a good place for washed-up people, and I was headed that way. But I didn’t come here to wash up.” Berman sounds happy, and he feels like his new album might, for once, be in sync with the times. Ultra-hip rockers Animal Collective recently praised Tanglewood Numbers in The New York Times, saying that Berman’s work affords the same kind of “guilty pleasure” as does Eddie Money’s. “I’ve always felt painfully irregular,” Berman says, “and the idea that I could remind someone of something that was a part of American culture for even an afternoon—that’s a blessing.” Even though he says he’s more at peace with himself than he has been in years, Berman knows his project of self-reinvention is far from over. “It’s like the story of the grasshopper and the ant,” he says. “If you end the story in the autumn, then the moral would be that the grasshopper enjoyed life and that the ant had wasted his life. So the ending determines the meaning.”

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