Breathe. That’s the title of folk-rocker Dan Bern’s new album, released just last week, and it’s a fitting one: These new songs offer more breathing room than some of his previous tunes, which overflowed with heady, impressionistic — and sometimes surreal — images.
The disc is the culmination of a few nomadic years Bern spent seeking — and finding — more room to breathe. After loudly railing against the Republican administration in song and conversation during the last presidential election, Bern retreated to the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico to get away from the lingering cultural noise that consumed the country during the 2004 campaign season.
“Living in the desert, I was definitely approaching life a little differently, learning how to breathe again, really. That part of the Southwest is about as far away as you can get from America without really leaving it,” says Bern, who comes to the Grey Eagle tonight. “There’s not that much there, and it’s not touched so much by commerce, and lot of it is like going back in time, which sort of appealed to me.”
Bern clarifies his decision to decamp to the stark beauty of the desert — with its open skies and room to roam — was not an escapist’s maneuver: “It can get too easy to approach life being concerned by what the latest numbers are, and this urgent thing and that urgent thing. I just needed to step back so that it could all fall away. I spent a lot of time looking at the sky and swimming in warm springs and riding my bike in the desert.”
Clearly, that more bucolic life found its way into Bern’s songs. Over the years, all of the comparisons to Bob Dylan that Bern has provoked were due not only to the striking similarity between Bern’s vocal style and Dylan’s famously nasal delivery. Those Dylan references were also rooted in Bern’s fondness for lyric overload — his lines have spun heads and delighted language lovers with the sort of kaleidoscopic, free-associative imagery and wild metaphors for which Dylan is famous. It wasn’t unusual for a Bern song to leap from cultural commentary to religion to baseball in the span of a single verse.
But living in the desert clearly prompted some psychic excavation and deconstruction. Bern’s current batch of songs don’t have that same whiplash effect — this time out, he’s clearly less interested in jarring the listener by juxtaposing unrelated images and notions.
“I’m sure that living down here made it into the songs,” affirms Bern. “It’s not like I’m writing about cactuses or anything, but there’s definitely a lot more space in these songs. They’re not packed extra tight with words like some of my older songs, where it was notion, notion, notion, idea, idea, idea, where you could hardly keep up and catch your breath. These songs really do allow you to breathe more when you hear them.
“I guess I’ve just quieted some of the inner voices that have always competed for attention in my songs and let the strongest ones have their say — instead of having 19 inner voices all jabbering at once.”
On Breathe, Bern’s narrative voices take turns at the mike. The title track is a first-person confessional, while “Remember Me” is a plaintive lament delivered by an anonymous jilted lover. Meanwhile, “Past Belief” is a long, rambling conversation with God, written from the point of view of a guy who’s “just trying to get some sleep,” proffers Bern.
The disc also has its dark moments, such as in the bleak “Suicide Room.” “But there’s also some hope in there, if you dig a little bit,” he counters. “I hope some people find sustenance in some of these songs, but at the same time, there are some who … Well, these songs might roll right past them, because I don’t really know who the audience is for this album.”
Musically, the effects of living in the Southwest also sneak in here and there. It’s definitely a rootsy-sounding record, as many Bern discs are, but this time out, some country flourishes emerge — from the occasional twang to the country-shuffle groove that propels a few of the tunes.
That’s just a warm-up, though, for the full-on country-bluegrass record he’s been working on lately. “I’ve only got three or four songs done, but I really love that stuff, sometimes I’ll go through whole periods where I’m just listening to Merle Haggard stuff from the ’60s.”
Bern continues to have strong opinions about what he perceives as the dishonesty, arrogance and ineptitude of the Bush administration and the right wing, “but at this point it just sort of feels like, to keep talking about it is sort of like throwing matchsticks into a hurricane,” Bern quips. “I put everything I had into getting these songs out before these guys got another four years of power. I mean, I could break myself emotionally, and they’d still be there, in power.”
Dan Bern plays the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) Wednesday, Sept. 27, with The Chris Chandler and David Roe Show opening. 8:30 p.m. $14. 232-5800.