[19 June 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Though David Berman and company had not exactly gone away, their last effort, Tanglewood Numbers, felt like a comeback album. Maybe it was news of Berman’s personal life, his steps towards sobriety. Or perhaps it was the revamped sound of the band. Behind Berman’s pained ballads there was a new, energized band in place of the old, slack chug of the old one. No matter the reason, the band found new life and released their most vital record since American Water.
Now, they’re continuing their new life with Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. The new album finds them breaking some of the band’s long-formed rules. Chief among them is the album title which, for the first time in their history, contains more than two words. But that seemingly surface-level switch is a small hint into an album that finds the Silver Jews breaking out in more than one way.
The band behind Berman has once again topped themselves. They’ve taken all the energy of Tanglewood Numbers and filtered it through the traditionally country-touched Silver Jews sound. These songs are stripped down, but full of riding guitar riffs and percussive keys, often burying the simple chords of Berman’s acoustic guitar, making it a small piece on which to build. And much of the time, these songs build to something wonderful.
The best of songs here are infused with a new hope that was absent from Berman’s old songs. As darkly funny as they could be, Berman’s songs, up until this album, were some of the saddest going. They were beyond sad, since “sad” seems to imply a temporary feeling, where the depression in his lyrics was chronic and pandemic. But, as his personal life has changed, so now have his songs. He has broken from the fatalism of his early work in favor of something a little more hopeful. “My Pillow is a Threshold” isn’t exactly unbridled joy, but it finds Berman dreaming of happiness and not more dread. In that song, “sleep is really hot pursuit”, where he goes after he wants, instead of bemoaning what he doesn’t have.
In “Suffering Jukebox”, Berman offers an answer to Johnny Paycheck’s “The Meanest Jukebox”, where the title machine isn’t the perpetrator of sadness, but the ignored victim of a happy town. That song, and “Candy Jail” later in the album, examine possible pitfalls of happiness. The possibility that it could slip into complacency, or that it comes to you at the expense of others. Despite the new hope in his songs, Berman does not simplify things. His thoughts on happiness—though that might still be too strong a word for what he’s describing—are as complicated as his thoughts on depression, which gives a number of these songs a convincing, affecting weight.
Berman, however, has always been a lyricist who tends to go too far. It pays off for him more than it should—he did once use the tired pick-up line, “‘Cause you’re the only ten I see” effectively in a song—but his success rate on his bigger lyrical risks here is low. Aside these songs about personal hope are stories like the picaresque “San Francisco B.C.” that contain Berman’s penchant for strange imagery but lack his usual humanity. The songs are funny and quirky, but don’t add up to as much as they could. “Candy Jail” starts out promising, but gets bogged down in an overdone succession of candy imagery. And while “Aloyisius, Bluegrass Drummer” captures the seedy world of restaurant employment, the quick song doesn’t come to much more than a wink and a nod.
On an album so brief, these less effective songs take up an awful lot of space, making for a record that is fun throughout, but still awfully uneven. Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is hit and miss, but its missteps come as a result of admirable risks. To see Berman take on a more hopeful, and occasionally lighter, set of songs is great for the future of the band. But whenever you strike new ground, you do have to find new footing, and the Silver Jews are in that transitional moment with this album. The album closes with its best song, “We Could be Looking for the Same Thing” which captures the honest self-doubt of Berman’s older songs but redirects it towards genuine romance, and offers hope for future Silver Jews releases. We can find one another, Berman seems to say, even if we can’t totally find ourselves just yet.