ight years ago on American Water, Dave Berman boasted “my ski vest has buttons like convenience store mirrors and they help me see that everything in this room right now is a part of me.” An observer first and foremost, it often felt more like Berman’s passive, tender will to absorb the world at a distance rather than shape it led him to a strange state of absence; even though the words were necessarily filtered through his perspective, his essence felt stylized to the point of erasure. That same album began with the line “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection” and proclaimed “I am the trick my mother played on the world.” Since then, Berman has had one book of poetry (Actual Air), the album Bright Flight (his fifth in nearly 10 years), a couple of drug addictions, and one attempt to end his life. Clearly, the world had come back to bite him in the ass.
Tanglewood Numbers is the sound of Berman’s convalescence. It’s the most immediate and vibrant release he’s made yet, but it’d be wrong to blankly call it a triumph. If Silver Jews fans have always seen the world through Berman’s eyes, we’re now just seeing Berman for the first time, a player returning to the field after the trauma of injury. The magic has waned a little, but he seems loose, present, and expressive; he talks about God in post-game interviews and we roll our eyes. He doesn’t transcend, but he has fun. He walks with invisible crutches, but goddamn it he walks.
The poetry on Tanglewood Numbers is at times unusually blunt for Berman, there’s no way around that. Still, his lyrics have often mixed the ultra-vivid and impenetrable, like “Grass grows in the icebox, the year ends in the next room / It is autumn and my camouflage is dying, instead of time there will be lateness.” It’s the kind of writing that leaves traces of immense feeling, but defies a final clarity. Though he’s also coughed up plenty of beautiful, grinning sad-sackery, some of his verse is unusually stark this time around; even though imagination is often the most alluring mode at our human disposal, lines like “Andre was a young black Santa Claus, he didn’t want to be like his daddy was / Better take the gun with you when you go, he’d rather be dead than anything he knows” shiver nakedly, sapped of mystery but sometimes more moving than any of his most bejeweled obscurities.
Musically, he’s ditched the clean, plainly instrumented indie-country schlep of his previous efforts for something brassy, something downright soulful. Piano hammers fly through fields of violin, banjos nudging their way through the fold; background vocals chirp in honest to gosh harmony, and Berman’s rock aspirations, however strange and ramshackle shine through with help from Jews alumns Steve Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, not to mention a cast of contributors ranging from Will Oldham to members of Jesus Lizard and Papa M. Perhaps most startling is that Berman’s voice matches the sloppy fervor of the music, often carrying the emphasis of the song. While his dull baritone has always favored modesty in order to cradle the lyrical goods, he’s turned into a true performer, wily and mottled. He sounds weepy, strangled by fate on lines like “You might as well say ‘fuck me’ ‘cause I’m gonna keep on, keep on lovin’ you;” on “How Can I Love You If You Won’t Lie Down,” he sounds like he just finished his 20th beer and took off the safety catch, giddily cracked and staggering towards noon. At times, he sounds unhinged.
And it’s here that Tanglewood Numbers could break the hearts of Berman-lovers and potentially abandon the rest. Halfway through the album-closing “There is a Place,” the song breaks down and Berman begins to chant “I saw God’s shadow on this world.” To those stained by his words, the lyric rings as an explanation for his absence and his reform: he bore the everyday as a series of divine shadows, God’s negative space, and his empathy nearly crushed him. “I took a hammer to it all,” Berman shouts. He did, and Tanglewood Numbers sometimes feels like the broken glass that once was his window to the world. And even though the shadow of his trauma looms, even though he sometimes sounds frail and sometimes sounds crazy, he still manages to turn the most mundane moments into poignant ones when he shrugs off lines like “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;” Berman’s still Berman and he finally sounds happy enough.