I oftentimes find myself peering into pints observing foam dissipate into still amber. What strikes me most about this process is that I cannot discern its aesthetic value. There is surely some appeal otherwise it would not prove so captivating. Yet my fondness for the sight is rarely shared so it may merely be beer lust. Admittedly my love of lager is such that any assessment stemming from or surrounding its consumption is surely biased beyond fairness. The whole display may not be attractive at all but I still find myself delighted by the sight of every bubble bursting.
It is this same quandary that grips me now as I consider Tanglewood Numbers. My fondness for Silver Jews rivals my lager love and the frequency with which both are intermingled further muddles any appraisal. Most immediately Tanglewood‘s surprising stridency struck me as impossibly beautiful and astonishingly inspiring. It was love at first listen and the stumbling onset of the album still unleashes a flood of joy. So zealous is my conviction in the grandeur of this record that it arouses skepticism. If I’m the lone punk in the beerlight fixated on foam, I may also be the only guy in the room who openly confesses that all my favorite singers couldn’t sing.
Many aspects of the record are far from readily appreciable. Elemental Jew David Berman remains faithful to an aesthetic that rarely concedes to casual listeners. While these songs rock and rollick more straightforwardly than their predecessors, they still hover somewhere between country hayride and indie heyday. Unwilling to yield exclusive appeal to either genre, they run the risk of satisfying neither and alienating both.
Berman’s voice has always been an acknowledged liability and age has not improved upon that shortcoming. That the stately balladry of Bright Flight which framed his unapologetically plain singing to a degree approaching conventional beauty has been sacrificed to raucous rockers that outpace his cadence and leave him straining only exacerbates the problem. It’s endearing to those of us who fall for that kind of thing but others may not be able to get past it.
Of course substance has always held primacy over presentation for Silver Jews. David Berman isn’t a singer-songwriter so much as he is a writer who sometimes sings. Deliberately considered and concise, his wordplay defines and distinguishes his art. His way with a loaded one-liner is unprecedented and his sense of humor unrivaled. Yet his is a casual genius that sometimes belies him with the appearance of veering from superficially funny to eye-rollingly obtuse. Tanglewood again offers little concession here as Berman comes up considerably shorter on lyrics and takes even greater liberties with the lines he lays down. The surreal imagery of Bright Flight is reigned in but replaced by overt over-simplifications and obvious rhymes. “Punks in the Beerlight” bemoans “it gets really, really bad” and “K-Hole” stoops so low as to state “I’d rather live in a trash can/ Than see you happy with another man”. Contrasting with the consistency of earlier efforts, mere cleverness is allowed to suffice where meaning was once insisted upon.
For all these faults, this still may be the greatest chance Silver Jews have ever had of establishing themselves beyond their humble number of ardent fans. Even if it’s not their finest work, it certainly feels like it is. There is a visceral vitality to Tanglewood Numbers that has never inhabited any album prior. Those records appealed to your head and heart, but this one goes straight for your ass and takes whatever else it can grab. While ballads like “I’m Getting Back into Getting Back Into You” and “Sleeping Is the Only Love” offer some respite in an otherwise unrelenting romp, even these songs burn with unaccustomed intensity.
This newfound energy obliterates many of those initial criticisms. Getting caught up in the searing orange soar of Fender fuzz burning through “Punks in the Beerlight” forces one to concede that sometimes things do indeed get really, really bad. Berman’s impassioned delivery insures that the line elicits pumping fists instead of shaking heads. Sure, he can’t quite keep up with the stomp of “Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed” but he attacks each line so forcefully it hardly matters. The immediacy and urgency in his voice is undeniable and irresistible.
Bolstering this blustery approach are some incredibly deft arrangements involving a cast of over a dozen contributors. Berman’s wife Cassie appears most prominently offering a sublime contrast to her husband’s gruffness. Getting downright soulful on “How Can I Love You (If You Won’t Lie Down)”, she almost upstages some of his finest lines with her winsome sass. Propulsive banjo livens up “Animal Shapes”, “The Farmer’s Hotel” gets enough spooky skronk and spectral reverb to keep an otherwise uninteresting narrative engaging, and “K-Hole” gets some spaced-out strings befitting its narcotic namesake. All of this makes for a fuller sound of incredible intricacy.
Even as it fails in ascending to the heights of prior records, these factors establish Tanglewood Numbers as a new level of success for Silver Jews. While Berman still gets in a far better than average amount of good lines, he can’t match the literary density of his older work. Disappointing as this is, the album certainly doesn’t sound like a failure. Instead it arrives so confident and fully formed that it seems to play by a whole different set of standards. Indeed, what Berman has done here is created a record that prizes feel over anything else. In doing so he deviates from his established formula and succeeds wildly with a triumphant rock record. And while I may not be able to convince any one else at the bar of the beautiful beer show going on in my pint glass, I can’t imagine anyone arguing with any given track from this record coming up on the jukebox.