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About 24 hours before arriving at a friend's home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a rare day off following a string of live dates in the northeastern United States and Canada, Dan Bern is happy about a couple of things: that he's touring behind his fourth and best album, the just-released New American Language, and that he'll be able to relax, watch sports and gorge himself like a good American at the Thanksgiving table before returning to a rattling RV and ambling on to the next gig. He is also happy that a prediction he made on "Tape," a song from Language, has proven untrue:
"Baby, we bombed the hospital by mistake/Too bad, war is hell," Bern sings in the song. "We bombed the embassy, we thought it was something else/We might get to World War Three by Thanksgiving Day/But as long as the turkey is golden brown, it's all gonna be okay."
"I wrote that more than two years ago," Bern says, with a throaty pinch to his speaking voice that only hints at the nasal tinge of his sung vocals. "The song was really about being on the road and going back and forth between Los Angeles and New York. There was so much going on in the world at that time, it just felt a little overwhelming. But now, I guess, it resonates more with everyone.
"I think that, like a lot of people, everything that's happened since September 11 has really made me connect with myself and reassess what my job is," he adds. "I've realized that it is to try to bring people together through music, even if the message is unclear or difficult or it seems wildly inappropriate. I have to process through the songs -- that's really what I'm always doing when I'm writing lyrics."
Since his self-titled CD debuted for Sony's now-defunct Work label in 1997, whatever fame Bern has garnered has largely been through word-of-mouth awareness of those lyrics. On each of his recordings -- the independently released EP Dog Boy Van, later reissued by Work; 1997's Dan Bern; the Ani DiFranco-produced Fifty Eggs, released in 1999; and Smartie Mine, a double CD issued later the same year -- Bern has crafted tunes that are musically straightforward and simple, as good folk songs should be. At the center of all that strum, strum, strumming, however, was a lyricist who seemed hell-bent on using the tradition to broadcast a decidedly off-kilter sensibility. For Bern, the acoustic guitar provides a framework for songs about love and relationships gone wrong and right, about the vapidity of pop culture and the desperation of hero worship. Along with more serious meditations on emotions and current events, Bern's past subjects have included everyone from a fantastically endowed Tiger Woods to a blue-haired Marilyn Monroe to his own friends and family members, all of whom undergo some sort of comic transformation once Bern is done with them. On Dan Bern, he recast the late Mrs. Miller as the wife of Henry rather than Arthur ("Marilyn"), while on "Jerusalem" he invited Christians, Jews and Muslims of the world to take comfort in the new knowledge that a multi-purpose savior had come for them at last: "I think it's time now to reveal myself/...Yes, I think you heard me right/I am the Messiah."
But with New American Language, released on New York indie Messenger Records, Bern has emerged as the leader of a strange and heavily instrumented band rather than a compulsively clever solo artist armed with a guitar and a couple dozen scrawled-in notebooks. Fleshed out by a fixed four-piece that includes guitar and banjo player Eben Grace, Paul Kuhn on "Cellocaster" and violin, drummer Colin Mahoney and Wil Masiak (who mans ten instruments, including glockenspiel, clarinet and something called an accordorgan), New American Language is a full and flexible recording, a bona fide studio effort. Compared with the minimalism of Bern's early efforts, it is nearly symphonic, augmented by the playing of guest artists who contribute layers of vocals and plenty of odd little sounds. The epic "Thanksgiving Day Parade," for example, plods along to the hulking squawks of a tuba and a thumping upright bass, while "Rice," a dreamy vision-quest type of narrative, is an exotic romp, complete with didgeridoo, worldly percussion and choruses of mantric chanting. At thirteen tracks, New American Language feels like the record for which Bern has spent the last five years warming up.
"I wanted more from this record; I wanted to put more into it, because I felt like the songs deserved that," he says. "And with so many people involved, it was sort of like I took myself as an individual out of the equation and just let it happen, however it was going to. And I had a lot of help on this one. It wasn't all just me, me, me. It was less about what was right for me and more about what was right for the songs and how to best serve them."
And how did Bern know when he had served them well?
"You get to a point of utter exhaustion when there's nothing else you can possibly think of to add or to do," he says. "I think this was, in a lot of ways, the most fulfilling musical experience I've ever had. But it was also really, really difficult. You go away from something and then come back to it so many times. You feel like, 'C'mon, let's just get this over with.' There were times, as late as this summer, that I thought I wasn't going to release this -- that it just wasn't working at all. But you get to a point where, even if it turns out in a way that is not necessarily what your intentions are, it just feels like it's arrived."
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."