Silver Jews singer/songwriter David Berman is either one backwards dude or, well, maybe he has it right and we`re all swimming backwards with snow pants on. While your everyday musician seems to be in their best (read: most naive) spirits early in their career (before they become stale or empty or forgotten) and beaten at some point in the middle of their career (before they fall into Greatest Hitsville or find a rare second artistic wind), Berman runs his own route.
After years of releasing great albums that paint him as an overly sophisticated, glass-completely-empty thinker with deep beliefs and emotions, Berman only recently seems to be getting satisfaction from his work, all of which (and I mean just about every song and poem he's written, no foolin') is worth getting to know. The upbeat accompaniments and playful lyrics of 2006's Tanglewood Numbers shot a flag into the indie-rock world's rain-filled skies, exposing a new side of Berman, the forever over-thinking songwriter known for his puzzle piece lyrics, one that would imply that not all of his punchlines are meant to be taken as critiques or, really, complaints.
The lyrical focus here is age and experience. Read up on Berman and you'll find that the man has no doubt already lived a life. That, and he's the rare authentic mix of sophisticate and gutter punk. On one hand, Berman once taught English as a graduate student at U-Mass and has a list of standing offers from book publishers; on the other, he's had his share of substance abuse problems and once took a size 12 boot to the face during a street fight that eventually led to the loss of sight in one eye. While on his first ever tour in 2005 (11 years after his first major release, but that's another story), Berman noticed something strange in the crowd each night. Kids. People sometimes half his still-young age. Since he'd never toured, Berman had no idea who was listening to his music, and thus figured it was people his age and older. Fellow sophisticates. After a number of his maturity-challenged fans approached him to let him know how much his lyrics meant to them, Berman got to thinking. The result is the sixth Silver Jews studio album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea.
There's little subtlety here; Berman is more or less giving straight-ahead advice - though often obscured by his brand of baffling poetics - to his young listeners. "Here's a shot of what I learned the hard way / Translate and make your own / I almost died / I hope you'll live," Berman sings on a track called "I'll Pretend to Be Yer Pappy, You Pretend it Matters." Okay, not really, but you get it. Anyone with a penchant for poetic breakdowns will find much to learn from these very thoughtful lyrics - and likely find much satisfaction from their deciphering. There's comedy and pain mixed in, as always, but, for the most part, Lookout is Berman's first set of mostly optimistic - or at least constructive - lyrics.
The music is stellar, too, but not perfect. Recorded with Berman's first ever consistent band of Jews (he usually works with a revolving door of musicians), the songs are meaty compared to other Jews recordings (especially the amazingly lean Bright Flight and kitchen-sink-grandness of Starlight Walker, two must-own albums). Here Berman takes the sometimes blown-out pop of Tanglewood and makes it louder, catchier and, well, downright strange at times. Truthfully, and I say this as a super fan of the band, it doesn't always work. There are many superfluous backing vocals by his wife/bassist, Cassie Berman, irritating sound effects, cheesy keyboards and other - mostly small - details spread throughout what sounds like a solid backbone. But, hey, the guy is happy and willing to take chances, nothing wrong with that.
Spread throughout the 10 tracks that make up Lookout's nearly 34-minute playtime are many growers. Most of the tracks sound "just fine" (read: not up to Jew par) initially, but as is the case with all Jews albums, the tunes grow exponentially after, say, 200 listens. Opener "What Is Not But Could Be If" is a true 20-something anthem, coming off as a syllabus of sorts for wandering minds bent on self-growth. The rough vocals will be off-putting to those unfamiliar with Berman's voice, but, as always, the charm and detail is all there, hidden in the cracks. "Suffering Jukebox" would be a killer single if not for the backing vocals. Ugh. They grow with time but really standout - in a bad way - upon first listen. The song is, at least as far as lyrics are concerned, the best song ever written about jukeboxes as a sampling of human growth, emotion and mystery. The writing, again, is unthinkably good throughout. "Strange Victory, Strange Defeat," no less, is one of the best written songs of the year. The vocals, again, aren't for everyone, but the music could easily be straight off of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain or even American Water - never a bad thing. "San Francisco, B.C." is another standout cut, but only because the storytelling is so ambitious, clever and academic. Really, listening to these songs today, after putting the album down for a month or so, I'm blown away. Proud to be a fan. There are problems here and there, but the songs do eventually set in and reveal themselves. That said, don't think too hard, just try to learn and enjoy these tunes - they'll make their way to you when you're ready.
Seemingly meant to be a more-approachable-than-ever Silver Jews album, Lookout will most likely initially bewilder longtime fans with it's many flaws and unexpectedly hopeful lyrics. (Lets face it, most Silver Jews fans like their tunes with a side of pain and pondering.) Here's to hoping Berman's fans - both old and young - are able to grow with their hero. The most confusing, surprising and at times rewarding album in the Silver Jews catalog, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is just another in a long string of examples as to why Berman is one of the best - and most artistically restless - writers of his time. A ponder-worthy grower from a man worthy of all the hero-speak.