In certain rock-crit circles it’s a foregone conclusion that authenticity as a lyrical quality in pop music is a bugbear at best and a futile pursuit worthy of ridicule at worst. That is, listeners are advised not to read into, much less trust, the machinations and maneuverings of musicians and their lyrics. So how does one respond to Tanglewood Numbers, knowing of Silver Jews frontman David Berman’s drug-abetted suicide attempt, as recently related in The Fader? Do Berman’s more-than-messy ordeals account for the darker mood of the album? Berman, also a published poet, has made — by his own account(ing), in a recent Pitchfork interview — a decent living writing the sort of cute faux-country aphorisms that wouldn’t sound too out of place in that old Phil Hartman Saturday Night Live sketch, where the late comic actor sang songs like “I Just Found a Fifty-Dollar Bill” and “I’m Drunk (Again).” However, in Tanglewood Numbers there’s an undeniable love-soaked yet bleak melancholia twisted in with the cleverness that, even without knowledge of Berman’s gossip-page backstory, rings as “true” as any set of pop lyrics can. Album opener “Punks in the Beerlight” sets the tone, with Berman for the first time sharing the microphone with his wife, Cassie, whose poised vocals offer a counterpoint to his growling drawl (to Berman’s credit, his singing is also more assured here). When they sing a cheesy line like “I love you to the max,” it’s easy to believe that they believe it.
A longer version, with a l’il bit more on the rest of the songs on the album, will appear here shortly.