Irish Release 2nd February 2007
::: Cooking Vinyl Records :::
live in different worlds right along beside each other."
So sang Dan Bern in one of his early songs. But
really we all just live in Dan's world, and he's been generous
enough to let us believe otherwise all along.
Let's face it: the man has more stray thoughts, makes more obscure
and askant connections, tries on more hats, slips into more pairs
of shoes, eavesdrops on more conversations, reads more minds,
and hears more voices than the rest of us. And what a lucky break
for us that he's had a pen laying around to document, describe,
and share so many of them.
During his already prolific recording career—officially
five full-length albums and at least as many EPs released between
1997 and 2005—the singer-songwriter has alternated, oftentimes
from one song to the next or even verse to verse, between documenting
the zeitgeist and retreating into the personal concerns with which
we all grapple. But then, as the old slogan put it, "the
personal is the political," and nowhere has that axiom received
such a vigorous workout than in the unmistakable music of Dan
Bern. His is the closest we have come to a pop music of ideas.
On the very first song of his Chuck Plotkin-produced debut album,
for instance, he outed himself as the Messiah. His work has only
gotten more brazen and brilliant since, whether climbing into
or cutting down the cult of celebrity, rewriting literary and
cultural history at a whim and to his taste, or drinking in with
one great gulp America's long landscape of idiosyncrasies (New
American Language, also helmed in part by Plotkin) in songs that
are at once flashy, flaky, unsentimental, comic, contradictory,
absurd, dazzling, ornery, sometimes blushingly direct, and sometimes
But Bern's sixth long-playing album, Breathe — which again
reunites him with big-league producer Plotkin — is something
entirely new for the artist. It takes the personal and finds in
it a seedling of renewal. This isn't music that has 'big balls;'
instead, it has a big, beating heart. In a way, Bern had always
been 'arriving' prior to this, but with this album he has finally
Arrived. The songs are not merely preternaturally observant, as
they have always been, but feel fully present and made from flesh
and blood. They trade in the verbal fireworks of the past and
make a touching investment in the lives of their characters, who
are often burned out and beat down by their overwhelmed lives—even
the Messiah, who reappears in the title track for His third act,
seems more than a little downcast—but who nevertheless somehow
find the strength and courage to beat back at the world, even
if only in small or symbolic ways. With a gesture of selflessness,
Dan disappears into these song-sized narratives and allows his
characters to voice their own—and, by extension, our shared—lives.
In the process, he has given them and his songs and himself a
reason to hope. And room to breathe.
Bern's father was a concert pianist who emigrated from
Lithuania to Palestine in 1939, a Jew who was one step ahead of the Nazis.
Later he met and married Bern's mother, a German Jew, a singer and poet
who had also escaped the ravages of World War II. In the late 1950s they
emigrated again and settled in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, where Bern was reared,
the cello-playing, baseball-loving progeny of two Old World artists in
the American heartland. In time Bern found the guitar, and his way to
the West Coast, whre he got his footing in the neo-folk music scene in
Los Angeles in the early 1990s. He put out his first album in 1997. Breathe
is his seventh. In between, he's amassed a strong underground following,
built in part on his prodigious output of intellectual and topical songs.
He's frequently been compared to Bob Dylan, because like the young Dylan,
he's funny and smart and has a regally Semitic nose.
Bruce, Bern can also be joyously obscene, which shouldn't be obscene at
all, as well as tender and even devout. "God Said No," a wistful
song from New American Language, continues a device he's fond of: Bern's
persona interrogates God and indulges in a little speculative time travel.
It sports a sensibility that seems to derive as much from Yiddish folk
tales as Douglas Adams's "A Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy."
"There's a long
history of that kind of thing," Bern said. "I recall reading
things where a man is talking to God--the Bible's full of that. I kind
of feel the same way about that as I do about songwriting. People say,
'Why do you write songs?' and I say, 'Why did you stop?' You know, little
kids make up songs, it's a natural thing... and then one day they stop,
some of them."
"They told us
in high school that writers write, and when they don't write they read,"
he said. "The writers that I love, some of them are songwriters,
but a lot of them are story writers. The best of the lot, at least my
favorite ones, are not writers that write in florid strokes so much as
very vivid ones, like James Thurber and Ring Lardner, Charles Bukowski,
John Fante, Hemingway. They're not writers who are so in love with their
own words; the picture's what's important.
"When I was making
this record, New American Language, it was like, 'Let's be in service
to the song -- what do the songs want, what does the story want, what
do the themes want?' It's hard to get out of your own way. When people
are trying to master their craft, it's more about learning to get out
of the way."
Excerpt from Robert
Meyerowitz article in the Anchorage Press