Silver Jews | Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea | Drag City
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(Click to enlarge)
In “San Francisco B.C.,” the centerpiece of the Silver Jews’ new Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, a protagonist and his girlfriend, whose first words upon their meeting were “romance is the douche of the bourgeoisie,” get involved in a misadventure. Over the next six minutes, lead Jew David Berman spins an oddball yarn with shocking depth and efficiency, each line crafted to serve both the story and the song. Like the great dramatic monologues and dialogues of the past half century (“Teddy Bear” by Red Sovine, Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind,” “Pancho and Lefty” by Townes Van Zandt and “Bridges and Balloons” by Joanna Newsom), the song creates a world and fills it with narrative. “San Francisco B.C.” features a ne’er-do-well narrator and his vegan girlfriend. Her dad’s a barber with portentous shakes, and they get tangled up in a murder with a man named Mr. Games, who has “jeweler’s hands and a blurry face.” Countless epic lines and verses follow. We learn about a burglary of “children’s fur coats and diamonds and jewels,” a brawl (or, as Berman calls it, “fist cuisine”) with Mr. Games’ stepson Gene, love and betrayal and curlicue twists and turns both plotwise and guitarwise, all carried along by the chug-chug-chug of a song that blends Charlie Daniels and Charlie Rich with a dollop of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is the sixth, and best, full-length release by Silver Jews, Berman’s two-decade-long project, which he’s gradually transformed from a Pavement-infused guitar band (Stephen Malkmus was an early member) to a crystal-clear country-rock concern, with twang and torch, piano flourishes, the occasional church organ and an ever-present drive. It was produced in Nashville, Berman’s home, by Mark Nevers, who himself has carved out a secret little corner of the country-music capital by overseeing beautiful albums by Lambchop, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Calexico — as well as engineering everyone from Marie Osmond and Etta James to George Jones and Johnny Cash.
And it’s Cash’s voice that Berman’s most closely resembles. Except Berman’s is flatter, and any extended rave on his lyrical expertise must contain this proverbial asterisk: His is a punctured tire of a voice, with a sad-sack style that suggests an insurance salesman with a stuffy nose more than it does the Man in Black. It’s droll and it’s rough, but it pushes, it moves, it travels where Berman wants it to, or nearly. It’s singing as necessity, and God bless him for putting it out there. The good thing is that Berman’s wife, Cassie Berman, is the perfect foil, and her harmonies on “Open Field” and “Suffering Jukebox” help balance the tones.
Of course, the best way to appreciate the joys of Berman is to focus on the words, because he’s the best lyricist out there. His only book of poetry, Actual Air, remains a steady seller nearly a decade after its original publication, and Berman counts among his admirers both the former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins and Pulitzer Prize winner James Tate. Like his verse, Berman’s songs draw on an odd assortment of fascinations: early American presidents; civil servants; bars and their oft-sad clientele; Minnie Pearl; and “squirrels imported from Connecticut just in time for fall” (Berman’s a little squirrel-obsessed, in fact). And, more and more, questions of faith, as in the album’s opener, “What Is Not but Could Be If,” in which he declares, in the resonant voice of a 19th-century senator: “The truth is not alive or dead/The truth is struggling to be said.”
Berman’s songs tell stories so rich and dynamic that they make the extended narratives of Bob Dylan story-songs sound sloppy and unfocused (which, admit it, they often are). Take, for example, the first couplet of the joyous, left-field anthem “Party Barge”: “Father drove a steamroller/Momma was a crossing guard/She got rolled when he got steamed/and I got left in charge.”
What does our narrator do with his freedom? “Living in this little town with my pedigree in shards/I chopped down a weeping-willow tree and built this party barge.”
(Of course.) What follows is a celebratory rock song replete with the sound of towboat horns, squeaking seagulls, driving guitar riffs and, at its climax, Cassie Berman as a dispatcher reassuring the now-lost barge pilot to “send us your coordinates, I’ll send a Saint Bernard.”
The best song on the album, “Suffering Jukebox,” is also the most traditionally structured. It manages to profile in its lines a lonely, unplayed jukebox in the corner of a smoky bar, and metaphorically connects it to the plight of the working musician. “They always seem to keep you way down low,” sings Cassie, “the people in this town don’t want to know.” Berman tries to understand in this perfect chorus:
Well, all that mad misery must make it seem true to you.But money lights your world up. You’re trapped. What can you do?You got Tennessee tendencies and chemical dependencies.You make the same old jokes and malaprops on cue.
“Suffering jukebox in a happy town,” mourns Cassie, finally. “You’re over in the corner breaking down,” and on we go, through the world that Berman and band have created, one that overflows with a sense of profound joy at capturing in lyrics and song the beauty of creativity, and, by extension, honoring the unknowable Other from which it is born.