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Dan Bern
New American Language

Of all the wonders here, the voice, first of all, is stronger than ever, less self-impressed, more committed to feeling. Bern's first record since the expansive Smartie Mine is also his rock 'n' roll move (and not just because of the splashy electric sound of the uptempo cuts); more than any other I heard last year, it connects me with myself, with how it feels to be struggling with the disparate threads of life and our shared culture as 2001 has bled into 2002.

The title track is the statement of purpose here; summarily a desire to reinvent the way we live and talk and love and feel each day. Starting almost too cleverly for its own good ("She said love, love, love is everything/ I said OK, I guess, whatever") it builds to a crescendo of longing, Bern's voice calling from the mix of guitars and percussion, "I dream mostly about love." It's powerful life-changing stuff if we have the ears to hear it. In fact, if we're going to insist on comparing him to Dylan, ambition is the trait on which we should be focusing. There is such joy and disregard for convention here you can miss the blues feeling for the wind rushing through your hair as you streak up the highway. Which at times, I suppose, is the point.

New American Language wants to contain the world, but more than anything, it's a war cry against disconnection and a shout out to immediacy; the sound of one of Kerouac's spiritual offspring simultaneously lost in America and delirious with its possibilities, both hopeful and overwhelmed. Bern is rarely content to present just one idea or shoot for one emotional color in a song, and the affirmations here, as in the impossibly tender "Albuquerque Lullaby," are undercut by earlier admissions that "my insides feel like a ghost town."

Is it too much to ask that all music strive for this type of complexity and emotion? Is it too frustrating to think how many who could use this music won't find their way to it? Probably, especially since Bern's songs finally have a musical body as powerful as their words. At least half of these 12 songs would sound incredible on the radio.

There is great, confident singing here, a love of language and a spirit inclusive enough to embrace both a hi-steppin' Britney Spears and the earnest folk song. Bern, like most of us listening to popular music today, organizes and makes sense of his life through pop culture as much as he does love or loss or any of the other Big Themes. His singular achievement may be the ability to remind us of the possibility of a life, lived with passion and soul, that not only makes use of the clutter of marginalia around us but transcends it.

by Ryan DeGama

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