BLUE STATE JUKEBOX
by Tony Peyser
If the words alone don't work in most writing, the end result won't either. But there are a few exceptions.
I learned this years ago when I read a play Sam Shepard wrote with Joseph Chaiken called "Savage/Love & Tongues." I could not get into it at all. But when I saw the filmed version of the play, I got it and loved it. The words only came to life when you heard how they were supposed to be read.
That's a lesson I never forgot and it also applies to reading song lyrics before you hear the music they accompany. I thought of this recently with regard to Dan Bern's newest release, Breathe. I assumed I would like the first and last songs the least because but they were the most lyrically elusive. But the music and tone in each found a way to memorably fill in the blanks. These tracks, even with their often cryptic lyrics, haunted me.
Singer-songwriter Bern, whose Anthems I reviewed here previously, has an agile mind and a big heart, the latter which he happily affixed to the nearest available sleeve. On Breathe, he's less expansive and more focused but the result equally compelling.
The album opener, "Trudy," is clearly about someone who's not happy and repeatedly pines about new beginnings: "And I have an escape route/For my life, for my time/Just one push of this button over here/New clothes, new face/New name, vanish with no trace/And a fine apartment on Cape Fear." It's only when he mentions about being on active duty that one suspects this is a foot solider in the war on terror who's thinking of embarking on his own, unofficial exit strategy. The poignant guitar and harmonica form an aching partnership which underscores the overall sense of dislocation. As I said, Bern doesn't spell it all out lyrically but you come away rooting for this guy to get that new life he keeps mentioning. As the music plays at the end, it ends on hopeful notes, which may bode well for the narrator.
The album closer is similarly elliptical but even more emotional. The hook onto which Bern tosses the song's garments is this chorus: "I stand in another man's clothes tonight/I stand in another man's clothes/Guess that's how it happens, guess that's how it goes/When you stand in another man's clothes." The accordion in the background adds even more feeling to the proceedings. Call me a partisan hack but the idea of standing in "Another Man's Clothes" struck me as what's right about Democrats and wrong with Republicans. It all comes down to compassion and the lack thereof, which has grown since 2000 as much as the national debt. The Bush administration has trafficked in callous neglect of that little thing called human life, whether it be those innocent ones that belonged to Iraqi civilians or poor folks washed away by Katrina. As we on the left seek this year and in 2008 to undo the wreckage of this administration, it will be largely driven by an ability to understand the hearts, souls --- and clothes --- of our fellow man.
A few songs later, Bern encounters an unlikely place to tell a story from with a similar dose of compassion. In "Suicide Room," his down but not completely out narrator is willing to take a cursed room in a hotel because he has nowhere else to go. He bonds with the two guys whose last four walls these were and finds the strength to not give up. Bern delivers another insightful chorus: "And I asked for and did receive/The suicide room/Figured if I can't beat this world/Maybe I can beat this room." After playing "Suicide Room" several times, I realized that the light of understanding can come from the darkest places.
"Past Belief" is over eight minutes long and in synch with earlier Bern epics. But it has a slower pace because his state of mind is more than a little rattled after going five days without sleep. He asks the Lord for a sign that He is still in the building: "How ‘bout a meteor/Or a shooting star/Or even a drunk/Getting thrown out of a bar/I'm getting impatient/And hope is expensive/And I'm running low/On everything these days." It didn't occur to me until I stared at these lines that the bleary point of view here is not that different from the fellow in "Suicide Room." I imagine he would have signed off on the last lines here: "So look out the window/Might be something out there/Maybe something to read/Here's a Vanity Fair/Winter is coming/That's a relief/And I'm willing to go on faith/But I'm past belief."
Title tracks should be the best songs on albums but that isn't always the case. However, it is here. In the first verse of "Breathe," Bern goofs on "Jersusalem" from his eponymous 1997 release when he jokingly claimed to be divine with a capital D: "Now a couple of years ago/I told everybody/That I was the Messiah come to save them/They started lining up with babies to be blessed/The sick and the lame, blocking the pavement/I walked on water and OK sank/Turned wine into whiskey and drank, drank, drank."
Bern then yanks his tongue out of his cheek and speaks from the gut about the weariness of these times we're living and how it takes its toll on our souls: "Now to tell you the truth lately even I/Start to get a little overwhelmed/War and pain and poverty/Those have been around a long time/But the oceans rise and the fresh water dies/And the hate stick harder to your insides/And the cars get bigger and the smoke churns out/And your idols fall and you lie a little better/And the train getting further and further off the track/And with each day passing it's harder to turn back ..."
Bern's solution is not to give in but take a time out and literally just breathe. Give yourself a moment to admit these days are disturbing and we need all of our personal and collective strength to persevere. It's a perfect thought and ideal song to embrace as we head to polling booths in just a few months to get this country and our world headed in the left direction. To be sure his message gets through, Bern deploys soaring back-up vocals by C.C. White, Greg Prestopino, Sally Sworsky and Renee Stahl, which give him a virtual choir to preach not to but with.
BLUE STATE JUKEBOX
Order your copy of "Breathe" from BuzzFlash.
Contact Tony for reprint permissions.