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Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2005 09:18 pm

Ambassador from poetry land

The Silver Jews’ music has never sounded more essential than it does in Tanglewood

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Silver Jews Tanglewood Numbers (Drag City)
Almost no one reads poetry anymore, which means that you probably haven’t read Actual Air, one of the very few poetry collections written by a working singer/songwriter that’s worth a damn (sorry, Jewel). Praised by former poet laureate Billy Collins and The New Yorker, the book proves that David Berman isn’t just another singer/songwriter with delusions of bard-dom — something that Silver Jews fans already knew. Whereas most lyrics go flat on the page, all their pretty idiocies exposed in the glaring silence, Berman’s words stand on their own irregular feet. Berman, who has an MFA in creative writing, would probably hesitate to call his lyrics poems, but they might as well be. Just pick up any Silver Jews CD, read the lyric booklet straight through without first listening to the songs, and marvel over the fact that you never once feel ashamed to be human. Tanglewood Numbers resembles its predecessors insofar as it’s overflowing with brilliant language, couplets so strange and yet so perfectly natural that you want to brand them on your skin, cross-stitch them on a sampler, broadcast them from highway overpasses. Collectively they create a gorgeous, grisly universe populated by suicidal young black Santa Clauses, old Yankee warlocks, brown birds that nest in Texaco signs, insane medieval kings, and cigarette-smoking ponies. Surreal and ruggedly vernacular, Berman’s lyrics reveal the hallucinatory strangeness of everyday experience and the unexpected banality of the absurd. As the narrator of “I’m Getting Back into Getting Back into You” acknowledges, “I’ve been workin’ at the airport bar, it’s like Christmas in a submarine/Wings and brandy on a winter’s night, I guess you wouldn’t call it a scene.” Tanglewood Numbers boasts so many quotable quotes — “Time is a game only children play well”; “The last dream left worth believing starts with animal shapes”; “I saw God’s shadow on this world” — that it’s tempting to just shut up, string a bunch of them together, and let Berman tell his own slant truth. Unsurprisingly, the music is always secondary on a Silver Jews album, but that’s OK. The Jews have always been more a loose confederacy of friends than an actual band, and Berman’s vocals, to put it kindly, are an acquired taste. “All my favorite singers couldn’t sing,” he admitted in a song on 1998’s American Water, and his pitch-challenged mentors would probably return the compliment. Solemn and broken, Berman’s voice carries the tune in the same way an arthritic pallbearer hoists a casket. Is he tone-deaf or tuned in to some secret frequency? Either way, there’s something peculiarly affecting in the contrast between his stumblebum baritone and his lyrics, which are inhumanly fine. Secondary though it might be, the Silver Jews’ music has never sounded more essential than it does here. Stylistically, Tanglewood resides somewhere between the indie-rock sprawl of American Water and the country & Western shamble of Bright Flight, with songs that range from loopy country doo-wop to punishing art-punk and neurasthenic folk. Berman’s wife, Cassie, provides sweet-and-sour supporting vocals; original guitarist Stephen Malkmus doles out saw-toothed riffage and needly counterpoint; drummers Bob Nastanovich and Brian Kotzur alternate flickery, pinging accents with brutal bastinado; and Paz Lenchantin multitasks on banjo and violin. Overall, the sound is denser, less desultory; the arrangements are artful but borderline chaotic, the carefully wrought orchestrations stippled with a thin scurf of noise. After a four-year recording hiatus marked by drug addiction, depression, and a suicide attempt, Berman seems to have returned with a new sense of urgency, a desire to pair his accessible eloquence with less inaccessible accompaniment. Poetry couldn’t hope for a better ambassador.
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