For all anyone knows, the shakiness that sometimes takes over David Berman’s voice is a conscious technique, but it doesn’t sound like one. On the new full-length Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea the Silver Jews’ singer and songwriter plays narrative games for keeps, times his jokes like a great comedian and—perhaps most impressively—creates music to match. Writing like a dream and using a cast of mostly Nashville musicians and producers, Berman makes it clear he lives in Music City. So maybe Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea asks the question: Does Nashville live in David Berman?
With his astringent but good-humored baritone making noises like those of some novelty artist doing variations on virile truckers’ songs, Berman refracts country music on Lookout Mountain. He sings about truth, failure, burglary, urban renewal and Sonny James. He has his doubts about modern country, which means he respects the genre’s fabled economy of means while taking the side of fat musicians with goatees and bald spots.
Cut at Nashville’s Lake Fever and Beech House studios, with extra tracking done at Marble Valley in Lexington, Va., Lookout Mountain benefits from the mysterious cohesion of Silver Jews’ current incarnation. William Tyler and Peyton Pinkerton’s guitars achieve a suggestive, laggardly elegance that evokes rockabilly and ’60s garage bands, while Tony Crow’s keyboards provide shadow narratives of Berman’s stories. Bassist and vocalist Cassie Berman and drummer Brian Kotzur swing the music with repeating patterns and beautifully rendered instrumental sections.
Like Silver Jews’ 2005 Tanglewood Numbers, but more gracefully, Lookout Mountain stares out of a window at the passing scene and doesn’t attempt to make the experience universal. This results in music that is accessible to almost anybody. You can listen to Lookout Mountain without the lyric sheet—Berman’s narrative flow is superb, and part of the fun is appreciating how intelligently he sets up what is basically a record of inspired digressions.
That’s not to say that Lookout Mountain isn’t obsessive in its pursuit of big themes such as truth, beauty and peace. As producer Mark Nevers says (Berman recorded vocals at Nevers’ Beech House, and Nevers mixed the record as well), “Every record David does has to be the best record he’s ever done, the most important record. So it builds up in his mind.” (Berman was not available to comment for this article.)
Nevers’ comment is a fair summation of almost any ambitious artist’s fierce drive. “You’d think it’d get easier as time goes by, but it hasn’t,” Nevers laughs. Still, Lookout is a collection that sounds inspired, easy and snatched out of thin air. It’s just as much of an advance over the fine Tanglewood as that record was over 2001’s Bright Flight, which marked Nevers’ first collaboration with Silver Jews.
“What Is Not But Could Be If” leads off Lookout Mountain with cricket sounds, glazed guitars that almost jangle and a perfectly timed lick that’s nearly a fumble. Emerging out of deep calm, Berman stretches his lyrics across an abyss the music traverses hesitantly. “When failure’s got you in its grasp / And you’re reaching for your very last / It’s just beginning,” he sings.
Although it’s not remotely bluegrass, “Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer” rocks along in a two-step that’s as comical as Berman’s lyrics. The story of a dalliance between a bluegrass drummer who was “just a normal kid” and Brick Butterfly, a “no wave singer for a country act / Working outta Region Ten,” it lands the hapless musician in hot water. “Suet, tallow, liquid squeals / Great mounds of plastic lard / That’s what she got the lad to steal / On the night that he got fired,” Berman explains.
“Aloysius” displays sympathy for the gullible skinsman, but whether or not Aloysius serves as a stand-in for Berman is open to question. “Like any strong young poet would / He packed his bags for Region Ten,” Berman sings. “I guess I know him less / Than I ever knew him then.” Like his predecessor Lou Reed and his contemporary (and sometimes collaborator) Stephen Malkmus, Berman seems untroubled by the differences between a serious song and a goof, and “Aloysius” is both.At six minutes, “San Francisco B.C.” rolls along on a minimalist drum pattern straight out of The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat. Punctuated by gorgeous instrumental sections, the tale unwinds perfectly. “Since her dad a local barber had been beaten to death / She had become a vocal martyr in the vegan press,” Berman sings of his one true love and ally in shocking the bourgeoisie. Of course, she leaves him because he’s a broke musician, and Berman ends up stealing “children’s fur coats and diamonds and jewels” with a guy named Gene, whose haircut is as lax as his morals.
For all its minimalist tendencies, “San Francisco B.C.” is observant, packed with incident and endlessly listenable. Meanwhile, “Party Barge” employs nautical sounds, as if Berman were turning into New Orleans singer Frankie Ford, who hit with “Sea Cruise.” What’s funny about “Party Barge” is the fact that the action takes place at a park with a pond, not on the high seas. Also funny, or at least squirrelly, is this line: “Chicken-fried pigeon in a Sonny James sauce.”
“Party Barge” isn’t merely whimsical, though, and this is one of Berman’s great strengths as a writer. The song turns out to be a typical rocker’s tale of self-invention, except that Tom Petty could never deliver a line such as, “Why not see a legend while it’s still being made,” with Berman’s sublime indifference and aplomb.
Elsewhere, “Strange Victory, Strange Defeat” questions current culture’s worship of celebrity. “What’s with all the handsome grandsons / In these rock-band magazines,” Berman sings. “What have they done with the fat ones? / The bald and the goateed?” It’s a good question. Like Malkmus, Berman remembers with affection a rock era in which fat guys—the power trio Mountain, for example, or Canned Heat—could become stars in a radically democratic art form.
“Strange Victory” jangles like indie-rock, but there’s something wrong with it. As on the rest of Lookout Mountain, the density of Nevers’ mix allows elements that are a little discordant to float to the surface. Too, Berman’s simple chord progressions work perfectly, but they have a weirdly expedient quality that makes a wider split in the record’s cracked heart. For example, “Strange Victory” features a chord change that really does sound strange, but the effect is totally subjective.
That means, one supposes, that Lookout Mountain is art. “Suffering Jukebox” seems to be about Nashville and the country-music business, and while it’s oblique, it’s hardly opaque. “Cranes on the downtown skyline / Is a sight to see for some,” Berman sings. “It ought to make a few reputations / In the cult of number one.” The song also contains what should become the record’s most quoted couplet: “You got Tennessee tendencies / And chemical dependencies.”
“Suffering Jukebox” makes a case for art over money, and suggests that country songwriting has lost touch with unmanageable emotions. This isn’t to imply that Berman writes songs that ask you to suffer along with them, but that he acknowledges pain while turning his experiences into the kind of seething backdrop all artists crave. In this, he’s the equal of any tunesmith currently working Music Row, and wiser than maybe even he cares to admit.
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