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Silver Jews - Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea

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Artist: Silver Jews

Album: Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea

Label: Drag City

Review date: Jun. 10, 2008

The last Silver Jews record, 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers, got pegged as a therapy session. In interviews, bandleader David Berman spoke openly of the substance abuse and mental health problems that plagued him in the period preceding the record’s release, and Tanglewood’s lyrics (“There is a place past the blues I never want to see again”) nodded forcefully in that direction. Still, the record somehow sounded too clogged to really qualify as an exorcism. From the stadium-rock bombast of the opener (“Punks in the Beerlight”) to the knotty electric leads of the closer (“There is a Place”), Berman’s witticisms got buried beneath gummed-up arrangements. As a result, Tanglewood Numbers was a record that sounded like it took four years to make––painstakingly charted for maximum anthemic effect.

By contrast, the sixth Silver Jews record is palpably post-cathartic. There’s a loping ease to most of these songs that's like memories of better days, and even when Berman’s lyrics edge towards the precipice of doubt, there’s usually some hook waiting to yank him back. Opener “What Is Not But Could Be If” is a good example––on the one hand, there’s a grand solemnity to the way Berman recites the title in his deep, barely-sung register, over the trailing twang of some steel guitar. If Rick Rubin was still picking songs for Johnny Cash to sing, this one could have made the cut––a wracking ode to the tortures of contingency. And yet, the messy syntactical dance of all those “What is not but could be if”-s and “What was not but could have been”-s is also baldly funny, while the jangly chorus and punning talk of “abridged abysses” serve as assurance that Berman has made it back from that place past the blues.

In some respects, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (a)bridges the abyss between the awkward excesses of Tanglewood Numbers and the slack country stylings of what are still the best Silver Jews records––American Water and Bright Flight. In addition to boasting the sharpest of Lookout’s many Bermanisms (“How much fun is a lot more fun? Not much fun at all”), “Strange Victory Strange Defeat” is a sunny standout, built on a pop lick overlaid with some well-calculated fuzz. “Suffering Jukebox” is perhaps the closest the record comes to a track on par with “Tennessee” or “How to Rent a Room.” A melancholy paean to a mouthpiece for other singers’ sorrows (“You’re all filled up with what other people mean”), it’s one of many spots where Berman’s bass-playing wife Cassie steps from the shadows to sing a few bars. Elsewhere her earnest enthusiasm can be grating, but here her voice has a curious effect, its processed, puppet-stringed sadness perfectly fitting the part.

Where Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea flirts with its promised grandiosity is on the handful of tracks where Berman switches to narrative poetry. “Aloysius Bluegrass Drummer,” “San Francisco B.C.,” and “Party Barge” are exercises in slanted storytelling––picaresque tales starring gluttonous femme fatales, backstabbing barbers’ daughters, and the captain of a hand-hewn party barge. They’re full of single-listen gags––field recordings of chattering gulls and jokes about haircuts––but these elements work to defuse the threat of bloat. By opening up his canvas, Berman allows himself more room to doodle, and this proves both an asset and liability. On the one hand, Lookout lacks the piercing insight of Berman’s best work––those Old Testament and American Gothic retellings laced with sarcasm and self-loathing. At the same time, there’s a casual quality to this set that trumps the belabored tangle of the last go-round. The record’s epic trappings are really just a disguise for getting back to basics.

By Nathan Hogan

Other Reviews of Silver Jews

Tanglewood Numbers

Early Times

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