Earlier this year, when 92-year-old W. Mark Felt came out publicly as Deep
Throat, the resulting international shock had little to do with the
particulars of his identity; it came as little surprise that he was a
top-ranking FBI official. Rather, that sudden revelation was an affront to
the assumptions we maintain about things that we can't explain or
understand. There's comfort in not knowing, in letting mysteries stay
mysterious. To take for granted the inexplicable for so long, and then to be
confronted with the reality at its center, is an unsettling experience, like
a little piece of plaster crumbling from each of the walls that we build to
protect ourselves from what we don't know. Certainly, knowing the identity
of Deep Throat will have little effect on my life, nor will it on yours, most
likely, but we'll all watch "All the President's Men" a little differently
from now on, I'd wager.
More central to my thoughts than 20th-century politics, however
irresponsible or lazy it may sound, is the sudden influx of information
about the formerly veiled and mysterious character named David Berman,
singer/songwriter for the Nashville-based rock outfit Silver Jews. While
certainly not as enigmatic as some other famous artists his secrecy is
sub-Pynchonian at best Berman has remained a puzzle. It would be a real
stretch to compare him to Deep Throat, but Berman, whose
identity has been shrouded for 10 years in rumor and misinformation, is the
closest thing to a Deep Throat that contemporary independently-released rock
music has. (His artistic statements probably will not bring down our current
corrupt administration, but you have to pick your battles.) He meets us once
every few years, delivers vital information about our lives through his
albums, and then disappears, never revealing his own identity.
Until now. Recent articles in Fader, The New York Times, MSNBC, and others
have been cheerfully spinning the David Berman True Hollywood Story: a tale
of modest beginnings, similarly modest artistic highs, dangerous personal
lows, and reinvention through music. Berman's now well-publicized drug habit
pushed him very close to the end; a vague combo of matrimonial devotion,
Judaism and writing brought him back.
Part of the Jews' mystique was a lack of solid information about Berman; his
refusal to play live or grant interviews certainly added to this. The
obscure playfulness of his lyrics, and of the poems in his published
collection, "Actual Air," does not give anything away. But now we know it
all, and it feels a little strange to have the veil lifted. Listening to
Tanglewood Numbers, the product of Berman's post-recovery musical
output, isn't a revelation in hyperbolic critical terms ("A revelation!"
says Gene Shalit!), but a real, actual revelation. Its themes and energy
tell us more about Berman than any of the magazines have been able to.
From the opening seconds of "Punks in the Beerlight," it's clear that the
primary difference between Tanglewood and previous Jews efforts (most
particularly 2001's Bright Flight) is an enhanced emphasis on the way
songs are structured, performed, labored over, and cared about. It's never
mattered that Silver Jews albums have typically expended their best efforts
on lyrics over melody, since Berman's singular poetry is so consistently
evocative. Songs like "Rebel Jew" (from Starlite Walker) aren't about
making sure the rhythm guitar is perfectly in tune; they're about things
like religion, love and country. And yet, hearing an excellent band put his
words into such an impressive new context is just as strange and oddly
wonderful as a mystery solved.
A case could be made that Berman's lyrics here aren't as perfect as they
were on American Water or The Natural Bridge, but the man
writing the songs has changed since those albums were recorded, and it's
easy and lazy to judge a songwriter on the strength of his previous output.
Tanglewood Numbers finds Berman re-embracing a life that he'd given
up on; to find fault in a couple of questionable lines is to miss the forest
for the trees.
Anthemic urgency brings "Punks in the Beerlight"'s tale of "two burnouts in
love" to rousing life, and the jubilant stomp of "Animal Shapes" is a far
cry from the somber fog of many tracks from Bright Flight. There's a
bitter country melancholy here, as well as a pervasive joyfulness, a pretty
adequate mix for a 38-year-old's recovery album. Lines like "Andre was a
young black Santa Claus/ Didn't want to be like his Daddy was" from "K-hole"
dash any fears that drug addiction annihilated Berman's wit, and successful
experiments like the epic-length cautionary narrative "The Farmer's Hotel"
best display how well-crafted these new songs are (thanks to his back-up
players Stephen Malkmus, Bob Nastanovich, Will Oldham, Paz Lenchantin, and
his wife Cassie, among others).
All this change, publicity, revealing of secrets and going public
doesn't feel like a stunt at all. It feels like Berman is embarking on the
next stage of his life musical, certainly and needed to come clean.
it was part of a 12-step, but ultimately it was more for him than for
any of us. But out of this whole mess we get Tanglewood Numbers,
Berman's most accomplished album, neither a return to form nor a radical
change, only an affirmation that living is probably better than the