Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Silver Jews. The Natural Bridge (Drag City, 1996)

"Cause I'm a man who has a wife who has a mother/ Who married one when she loved another/ You're a tower without the bells/ You're a negative wishing well."

Every year when cooler weather brings an end to summer and introduces fall -- my favorite season -- I invariably turn to The Natural Bridge, the Silver Jews' second LP. There are a couple of reasons for this: first, this album was released in the fall, I bought it as soon as it came out, and listened to it constantly. So, the sense of hearing being especially evocative, I associate the sound of this record with gradually shortening days, falling temperatures, and burning leaves. Second, the album itself -- lyrically, musically -- has a distinctly autumnal quality, capturing the beauty and sadness of the season in DC Berman's laconic drawl and melancholy airs.

The Natural Bridge was the first Silver Jews record that didn't feature any Pavement personnel, putting the "Silver Jews is just a Pavement side project" theories to rest. Though Pavement's Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich made serious contributions to 1994's Starlite Walker and the no-fi EPs that preceded it, it was clear even then that the Silver Jews belonged to Berman. His style and approach are different from Malkmus's, less arch and more direct, and the tunes have a mellower, easier feel to them, without any of Pavement's more jagged aspects.

However, just because the Silver Jews aren't especially rocking doesn't mean they don't pack a punch. Far from it. Especially on The Natural Bridge, the naked loveliness of the songs and sublime genius of the words hit like a freight train, the excellence of the record made manifest immediately. There's power here.

Musically, The Natural Bridge is awash in loose, country-rock atmospherics, mid-tempo acoustic strums, and relaxed lead guitar runs. The drums tend to lope, dragging just enough behind the beat to underscore the LP's casual mood. But instead of the unhurried attitude resulting in a boring, lukewarm listen, what you get is a warm, open record, the easy pace allowing the songs to settle in and make themselves comfortable. Listening to The Natural Bridge is like putting on your favorite sweater for the first time all year, luxuriating in its cozy comfort and perfect fit.

Because the songs do fit perfectly. From opening track "How to Rent a Room"'s initial snare crack and gentle jangle, it's clear that this is going to be a singular listen. The hypnotically chiming "Pet Politics," the twangy "Black and Brown Blues," the tenderly mocking "Dallas," and the sadly elegant "Albemarle Station" are all highlights, but they're just the best of an exceptional batch. The tunes throughout feel familiar and lived-in in the best way, as though Berman has hit upon some sort of sonic universal, a series of notes and their arrangement that appeals intrinsically to the human ear.

And it's impossible to talk about this album without talking about the lyrics. Berman is a poet (like, a real poet, who's published books of poetry and all) of some talent, and his lyrics show it. Lines like "Chalk lines around your body/ Like the shoreline of a lake," or "I passed an abandoned drive-in/ With ivy growing over the screen/ It was like I caught Hollywood sleeping/ Sleep without the dreams" connect in subtle but intense ways. Images like "the jagged skyline of car keys" or the "hundred gutters" of a corduroy suit are clear and simple but finely observed, too, demonstrating a unique and gifted perspective on the everyday which allows Berman to extract the beauty from the most common and banal and shine a light on it for our benefit. It's an honest and useful art.

Fall is here, jackets are out, and The Natural Bridge is on. I listen to this record all the time, but it feels most right right now. Do yourself a favor and get it immediately, play it nonstop until Thanksgiving, and give your brain a warm fall sweater. Your brain will thank you.