By Dave Herrera
By Jesse Livingston
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While purists may lament Bern's transition from the deeply personal world of acoustic performance (they refused electric Dylan, too, at first), there's still plenty of the quirkily confessional spirit that made Bern a cult favorite in the first place. Besides, he notes, he's performed with live bands sporadically throughout his career as a traveling musician, just never on record with such a full band. (Asked if his group would be sporting the many instruments -- like the tuba -- that play throughout the new album, Bern replies: "Yes, you will see them. If you bring them.") Written over a two-year period as Bern moved around the country, New American Language reads almost like a travel journal, with geographical references that help set various moods and atmospheres. "Turning Over," for example, begins "in that town in New Mexico/Named after a game show," while Bern indulges a daydream of a simpler life on the album's title track: "Sometimes I think the thing to do/Would be to get a place/Way out in Missouri/Put down as many months' rent as you can part with/Tell everybody else you went to France."
A vocal Jewish artist who finds most of his material in the belly of American culture, Bern treats musical, political and religious figures with equal deference: On "God Said No," he explores the futility of fixating on the past through a series of sad vignettes wherein he wishes to comfort Kurt Cobain, to stop Hitler and to remove Jesus from the cross: "You would get caught up/In theory and discussion/You would let your fears/ Delay and distract you/...God said no."
New American Language may be the album that helps Bern leap the scary gap from the underground to some modicum of mainstream recognition; two of its singles, "Alaska Highway" and "Black Tornado," have gotten some intermittent airplay around the country. Bern is just earnest, likable, smart and funny enough to appeal to both music snobs and listeners of adult contemporary radio -- even if his humor is sometimes lost on the more literal-minded. He resembles a wisecracking, smartass-but-sensitive friend whose humor you might not always get or see coming, and he delights in kicking America's cult of celebrity right in its overblown keister: "Alaska Highway" stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Britney Spears, Eminem and Keith Richards in a madcap road caper.
"I think a song is such a big playing field," he says. "It can take anything that you want to put in it. When I'm using humor, I think a lot of the time I'm probably amusing myself as much as anything. But it's like, with pop culture and these people we hear so much about all the time, you don't just have to sit there and let all of this stuff bombard you. You can take it in, twist it around and spit it back out. That way, you're having some fun with it rather than being oppressed by it."
Some of New American Language's most telling moments come during a verse of its title song: "I have a dream of a new pop music/That tells the truth, with a good beat/And some nice harmonies." Truly, in a time when commercial pop and authenticity seem mutually exclusive, Bern's vision is a welcome one.
"A long time ago, I read about [William S.] Burroughs having a dream about melding the musical world of Dylan and Guthrie with the musical world of Elvis and somehow winding up with a pop music that means something. If I have an ambition for my music, it's to try to find my way to something like that."
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