Bern Alights With Lyrical Ingenuity in New Album

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Kate DeForest Arts Editor

There is something to be said for the kind of rock music in which you could comfortably categorize Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and David Bowie (especially the Bowie of the acoustic Hunky Dory). I’m not sure what I’d call that grouping of rock, but it seems to me that they all have the same sort of, as much as I hate to use the word, vibe. It’s music you want to listen to when driving, rain or shine. Even if you’re stationary, it creates the illusion of travel, or at least of being acquainted with people who are well-traveled and return from their trips to tell you their stories. Perhaps that’s the best way to term them: storytellers. They make the kind of music you don’t even realize is running through the same tracks again, and if you do, chances are you may just let them run.

Dan Bern is one such artist, and one with whom I am newly acquainted, though he has been on the indie scene since his self-titled debut of 1997. His lyrics, mostly narrative, are an eclectic mix of the eternal and the ephemeral: in “God Said No” he uses Hitler as a foil for exploring man’s attempt to justify historical atrocities with the idea of a benevolent God, and does so just as adeptly as (within the same song) he pits Kurt Cobain’s suicide against his own ambition. The lyrics are set against a simple melody that reminds one of a Brahm’s quartet, which creates a weird disjunction between the subject matter and the form. However, as in many of his songs, it is exactly this disjointed feeling that makes the songs interesting to listen to; they are never what you expect them to be.

His newest release, New American Language, which came out Oct. 9, 2001, is rife with intelligent and quirky lyrics, the melodies range from some ballad-type songs heavily influenced by country music, to straightforward rock, to folk, to that which would be nearly impossible to categorize except as maybe Asian influenced blue-grass. The variety of genre found within the album is reflected by the number of instruments used in making the CD, including the accordorgan, Wurlitzer, banjo, Cellocaster, digeridoo, glockenspiel and tuba. What results is an amalgamation that somehow remains tied together by the strength of Bern’s voice.

One of the most engaging songs is called “Rice,” and is one that makes use of the pentatonic scale quite extensively, only it does so through the sound of the violin. The lyrics, sounding very much like the prose of Murakami Haruki, detail the relationship of a man to a married couple: “He was reading heavy books,/ and seemed burdened by his knowledge,/ she wore a thin Japanese robe.” The sparseness of the verse adds to the sense of space, and leaves more of the emotive qualities of the song to the instruments.

In contrast to the experimental “Rice” is the straightforward rockabilly of “Honeydoo!” the exclamation point being emphatic throughout the raucous song. With crisp guitar riffs, the song is punctuated by lyrics that don’t exactly invoke the same muses as “God Said No,” but have all the fun and boundless energy one associates an icon like Gene Vincent.

Later on the album is the ballad “Toledo,” the opening lines of which evoke a sort of melancholic biting wit, with the disenchanted “Sitting in the Church/ Of the Holy McDonald’s/ I took off my shoes/ Like the Buddhists told me to/ And I make my sacred offering/ And I dip my hands in Pepsi.” The song goes on the contemplate religion and homeland, in the surprising terms of Karl Marx, Groucho Marx, and a “holy candy wrapper.”

Bern, who looks like a cross between a bouncer and a high school gym teacher, is currently touring the country to promote new American Language, and will play Higher Ground in Burlington on Nov 19. I can only imagine what lyrical ingenuity and musical mayhem might arise from a live performance.

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Bern Alights With Lyrical Ingenuity in New Album