Although he is known for sharp songs with cutting social and political commentary, Dan Bern can be a very mellow dude.
Taking time out during a drive from California to Texas to talk about “Breathe,” the latest disc in his decade-long career, the folk-rocker is accommodating, thoughtful, even circumspect discussing his tunes about tarnished heroes, roughed-up messiahs, endangered dreams and crises of faith.
However, the tenor of the conversation changes markedly when Bern is asked if there was a particular inspiration behind the song “Tongue-Tied,” a pointed poke at artists who allow their work to be used for commercials. At first Bern offers generalities, but pressed for specifics, he finally cuts loose about “Tongue-Tied.”
“I sure heard a lot of that John Cougar (Mellencamp) song (`Our Country’) during the World Series and Super Bowl,” says Bern, alluding to the TV ad for Chevy trucks.
“It’s just about the notion that when people see these songs - the ones they’ve given their hearts to, given a special place in their lives - see that same recording used to trick them to buy some vehicle, or sugar water or whatever. What does that do to the psyche the next time a good song comes along? ...
“You’re compromising the (music) form itself and the connection between listener and performer,” he adds. “If you’re the listener, it’s like you fell in love with somebody who has eight (spouses) in four different states.”
Compromising situations haunt most all of the characters on “Breathe.” But though his characters may be flawed, he imbues them with some semblance of hope and an inner resolve. “I’m willing to go on faith,” sings the disillusioned but far from cynical protagonist of the eight-minute-plus “Past Belief,” arguably “Breathe’s” crowning moment.
Bern explains the song’s origin: “It literally came from one of those times when I couldn’t sleep for a few nights in a row. I was keyed up for a few reasons, and about four in the morning I started writing because I didn’t know what else to do. It took the form of talking to God - `Can I get a little sleep? What will it take? Is there something I’m supposed to pay attention to?’”
The song calls to mind both Steve Earle and Bob Dylan (a comparison that has shadowed his singing and songwriting so much that he once quipped, “I guess Bob Dylan was sort of the Dan Bern of the `60s”). But “Past Belief” isn’t the least bit repetitive, despite its length. “The form is big enough to encompass a lot,” Bern says. “It’s like this big wheel. You just jump on it and it takes you on this full ride. It unfolds naturally.”
“Breathe,” which was released last September, is a departure for the Iowa native who now lives near Truth or Consequences, N.M., because it is more character-driven and less political than some of his recent discs, especially 2004’s “My Country II” EP, which came out during the 2004 presidential election campaign and included songs such as “Bush Must Be Defeated” and “President.”
“(`Breathe’) might be more in line with earlier stuff I did,” Bern says. “It’s not every record, every year I’m going to be singing really overtly about what’s in the newspapers. ... But I really don’t put boundaries between political, personal, social and historical. It’s all bound up, even though a song might lean a little this way or that way.”
And where does Bern get grist for his songwriting mill?
“One of the best ways is to leave the country and read a newspaper,” he replies. “You’ll get a completely different perspective. ... I also listen to all the talk-radio programs. A lot of them make me scream, but that’s where part of (his inspiration) comes from.”
Bern compares right-wing broadcasters to “Greek choruses with pots and pans.” And if the news doesn’t suit their agenda? “You bang louder.”