In January, Silver Jews frontman and songwriter David Berman turned 41, making him almost 20 years older than he was when the band was formed. That he has aged isn’t notable—despite pharmaceutical enterprise, nobody has, as of yet, successfully stopped the aging process. How he has aged, however, is more interesting. Time can do weird things to artists. For Elvis Costello, it’s proven not only kind, but fruitful, as his output’s level of quality has remained surprisingly high. For Sting, it’s shown just how easily a once-vital artist can go adult contemporary when not performing yoga and having tantric sex. While some of David Berman’s contemporaries have lost some of the artistic touch that was so abundant in youth (I’m looking at you, Malkmus), he not only continues to write great songs, but also shows a maturity that shows how flattering a few extra years can be.
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, Silver Jews’ sixth album, is a stark contrast to previous effort Tanglewood Numbers, countering that album’s tortured soul and fiery rock numbers with a warmer, more confident collection of more subdued but no less excellent songs. Though the album’s cover may depict Babars standing over a rocky and violent sea (best album cover of the year, by the way), Lookout Mountain is ultimately a hopeful and playful album, if still brimming with the sometimes painful realism that Berman is known for.
In “What Is Not But Could Be If,” Berman muses over “what could have been” while crossing an “abridged abyss,” over a strong melody from guitars just barely touched with reverb. By comparison, “Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer” is a bit more fiery and fired-up, with countless entertaining lines like “she was a hardcore gobbler and a long-time guzzler of hydrogenated crap.” The outstanding and “Range Life” reminiscent “Suffering Jukebox” is excellent, made more so by the inclusion of Berman’s wife Cassie on backup vocals. And on the twangy, exotic “My Pillow Is the Threshold,” Berman dispenses wisdom that most of us haven’t quite learned yet: “I take decaf coffee/ two sugars and one cream/ I don’t see the use in staying up/ just to watch TV.”
“Strange Victory, Strange Defeat” is another magnificent track, a country-tinged mid-tempo rocker with an epic chorus that’s triumphant even when Berman sings of defeat. And, to boot, it features yet another verse to be added to the Silver Jews hall-of-lyrical-fame: “what’s with all these handsome grandsons/ in these rock band magazines/ and what have they done with the fat ones, the bald and the goateed?” It’s about at this point where the songs start to mellow out a bit more and lose some of the power within the first half, though there’s not a bad song here, just some which make a bigger impact than others. Though, admittedly, the seafaring sound effects of “Party Barge” are pretty funny.
At 41, David Berman has aged well, holding tight to the poignant and playful songwriting that has come to be a Silver Jews trademark, while veering ever closer toward Cash and Hazelwood in his maturity. Two decades in, the Silver Jews still put together a good album, and Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is certainly a keeper. But most importantly, it reveals a shift, ever slightly, toward an optimistic maturity. If you listen carefully, you can even hear Berman smiling.
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