When you can’t help but look: Dan Bern takes it all in stride on Breathe

Dan Bern: has been living in the New Mexico desert. He’s back on the road now supporting his new full-length, Breathe.  Photo by Judd Irish Bradley

Dan Bern: has been living in the New Mexico desert. He’s back on the road now supporting his new full-length, Breathe. Photo by Judd Irish Bradley

From: The LEO Music Desk
To: The Big Cheese

It has come to our attention that you are writing yet another piece on Dan Bern*. What can we say — there’s nothing we can say, that’s right, when the paper’s goddamn editor says he’s gonna write a piece of his choosing (and make deadline too — right). So tell us once and for all, for God’s sake, why you can’t get this baseball-addled singer-painter guy out of your head. Convince us, please. You may have the clout to ram any damn piece down our throats, but we’re a scrappy bunch, and if you swing at this one and miss, steroid boy, your big balls may just find their way to Music Desk batting practice, where we use aluminum bats.
* At least it’s not Springsteen again.

Dan Bern stands on the precipice that is life, looking over and seeing all the beauty and all the horror. He can tell more than most how things may look like opposites but are often one and the same when you turn them over or hold them up to the light. He didn’t really ask for this front-row seat, but he got it anyway, and he’s spent the last couple decades doing his best to transform his observations into songs.

Bern’s Sony debut album in 1997 placed him in a long line of wordy, guitar-strumming troubadours who get compared to Bob Dylan. So did John Prine back around 1971, but we don’t hear much about that anymore. Bern does have that troubadour quality, but he’s writing for a world 40 years removed from what comprises this country’s most recent activist period. His concerns are not those concerns. But he has plenty.

He’s written more than a few songs that might make a benefactor cringe, about aliens screwing monkeys or Anais Nin dipping for chocolate with Johnny Cash (you know about Marilyn Monroe and Henry Miller, no?) and other odd things that would turn off a lot of people who otherwise would probably respond to his funnier tunes or his love songs, but he’s kept it going, built a fan base and, dare we say, channeled a good deal of his self-doubt and transgression and yearning into songs that, in 2006, are incredibly sweet while still intensely observed.

He’s got a brand new full-length, his sixth, called Breathe (plus five EPs and a novel and God knows how many other stories, jokes, half-songs and whatnot that float around on MySpace (www.myspace.com/danbern) or wherever; it’s a strong collection of work that startles slightly for how it seems to move in something like a straight line. It seems living in rural New Mexico can bring a certain clarity in the larger sense.

I don’t always know how to separate characters from their creator, and even in a song that has characters you can’t help but assume some measure of autobiography. Is this his story? I don’t know, but I think it may be, because Dan writes a lot in first-person and revisits old themes, like talking to God and claiming to be the Messiah and taking in the state of the world and, of course, finding it lacking, but charming and funny too, worthy of good laughs, some self-deprecation, and also doubt, even the occasional fit of despondence. But a song like “Suicide Room” is actually uplifting, because the protagonist rents the damn apartment where two tenants have offed themselves, and he stares back hard and lets you know he’s not giving in to that. That is determination, yes, sir.

All told, the new songs are hopeful, helpful, and topical. They exist in the complicated world of Islamogoofiness and establishment-driven contradictions meant to drive us crazy, like it’s OK to kill the other in the name of love but God forbid we have a smoke or a burger. No, that will never do.
There’s a young man who curses his elderly father for not spelling it all out for him before dying (“Feel Like a Man”), the fine micro and macro metaphors of the title track (Stop what you’re doing … and breathe) and the sweet selflessness of “Remember Me” (If I was a bird I’d make a nest in your hair/And come home to your head every night/If you were blind I’d play guitar softly beside you/The melody would be your candlelight).

And there’s “Trudy,” a typical elliptical Bern concoction that invokes Barry Bonds and asterisks (the whole country needs a damn asterisk, Bern told me — full interview at www.leoweekly.com), an AWOL soldier contemplating a new life on Cape Fear, and the NFL playoffs leading up to the Christian New Year. Oh, and there’s a bull contemplating a cow in heat.

In the end, it’ll make you smile. But you can’t blame him — I certainly don’t — if he happens to notice that some things haven’t gotten any better. There are those cursed souls who’d rather know the intelligence was cooked — not enough of us to turn a truth-teller into a 27-million seller, perhaps, but at least we can feel like we saw it all coming.

Bern has noted that most kids tend to make up stories as they grow up. Somewhere along the way, most of them stop for no apparent reason. Some carry it on and their words evolve.
At 41, Dan Bern has figured out a few things but he’s also thinking about how he’s just getting started. When you’re born on the precipice, the only way out is straight ahead. You can take a swan dive or stand in the batter’s box and take your cuts. Hang in there and sometimes you start seeing that ball a lot better, and even though sometimes it nicks your wrists or plunks your ribs, it starts feeling pretty good to just stand there and swing. And breathe.