an affirmation of Bermans lyrical innovations...
Paul Reed

12:07 6th June 2008

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Released in 2005, ‘Tanglewood Numbers’ was the fifth Silver Jews album. It had been a long, turbulent journey but songwriter David Berman had finally made a timeless alt. country record that was lyrically astute, heartbreaking, hilarious in places (“What kind of animal needs to smoke a cigarette?” was one musing on ‘Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed’) and extremely tuneful.

It was also what alcoholics might refer to as a ‘moment of clarity’. Following years of drug addiction and a creative life firmly placed in Stephen Malkmus’s shadow, Berman finally stepped into the light, even playing a series of inspirational live shows for the first time in the fragmented history of the Silver Jews. If this was Berman’s rehabilitation phase then surely ‘Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea’ is in danger of sounding too content, the straight and narrow tracks following the storm starring a fitter, happier David Berman performing duets with his wife on a load of country ballads. Perhaps this is a reasonable assumption.    

Thankfully, Berman blows this ridiculous romanticising of the tortured artist out of the water by delivering a peerless set of brilliant and semi-autobiographical stories, contemporary hymns that could all feature on Harry Smith’s ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’, albeit with several knowing lyrical nods to modernity.  

The opening ‘What Is Not But Could Be If’, despite the fortune cookie tongue twisting of its title is all shadowy noir guitars and Berman’s most direct and confident vocal to date, intoning “We could be crossing this abridged abyss into beginning” like a young Johnny Cash.  It is swiftly followed with the Wild West bar room shuffle of ‘Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer’. As always, the characters of Berman’s compact narratives are described in light and shade, humour balancing out the darker elements.

‘Suffering Jukebox’ makes you wonder if Bon Iver also smuggled a few Silver Jews records up to that rural retreat of his whilst writing his critically acclaimed debut, such is the similarity. Later, on ‘Strange Victory, Strange defeat’, Berman teaches The Handsome Family a trick or two about getting the right balance of drama, social observation and stream of consciousness lyricism and injecting it into country traditions.    

Early highlight ‘My Pillow is the Threshold’ is all Dylan-esque fire and brimstone (Documenting “A dark and snowy secret and it has to do with heaven”). It is Berman at his lyrical best; the everyday meeting the otherworldly set to a backdrop of aching, twilight guitars. Although it isn’t a competition between the two luminaries, it has been an absolute age since Malkmus penned this kind of sublime life affirming twisted Indie folk. In fact, the lyrics are so good that it is difficult to not view the album in complete literary terms, a collection of short stories set to music. Ah, but what great music. We should not underplay the contribution of the other players, Berman has taken his recent touring band and harnessed a rawness and vitality lacking from previous Silver Jew’s adventures.

The album is underpinned with intricate flourishes of banjo, pedal steel and a distinctive melodic sensibility. Berman’s wife Cassie, in particular provides some delicate yet integral backing vocals in places, the perfect foil to Berman’s sometimes grumpy old man persona. The overall effect is one of American Splendour star Harvey Pekar travelling back in time to Wild West territories, Berman lamenting the rise of a vacuous ‘Rock n Roll’ popular culture and simultaneously battling his own demons.

The closing ‘We Could Be Looking For The Same Thing’ IS actually a duet with Cassie (Berman fantastically proclaiming “I hope I don’t come across as a coyote in your eyes”) and it strangely brings to mind Nick Cave and Kylie, albeit with more romantic as opposed to murderous overtones.

So, ‘Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea’ is an affirmation of Berman’s lyrical innovations, his razor sharp storytelling abilities and the enduringly melodic take on alt. country provided by the Silver Jews as they continually find new ways to make age old statements.

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