"I'm gonna shine out in the wild kindness and hold the world to its word." David Berman nearly always makes good on this chorister's promise -- holding the world to its wordplay, that is -- when he makes a Silver Jews record. A venerable Moses of melody, Berman translates his poetry into lo-fi avant-country ballads with the help of his wife, Cassie, his music-industry friends (Steve Malkmus, Bob Nastanovich, Will Oldham, etc.), and, for the latest Silver Jews release, possibly even the staff of the manuscript division of the Library of Congress.
At least, that's what the liner notes suggest. The album, Tanglewood Numbers, finds Berman all tangled up in bluegrass and attempting to rock 'n' roll his way free. Gone is the neat anecdotal irony that ties its own loose ends with Eagle Scout expertise and the folksy, Foghorn Leghorn-esque charm that underscored his previous release, Bright Flight. Berman's music has weathered into a gnarly mess of strands riddled with granny knots and frayed ends, but it's never sounded better.
It's almost as if Berman is taking a step back and reconsidering the sense of place he's been carving into notepads and record grooves since 1994's Starlite Walker. With the contemplative slow-core of Silver Jews' following LP, The Natural Bridge, Berman rendered memories of his homeland-turned-ghost-town before using his belt buckle to part the sonic seas on American Water.
Not to put too fine point on it, but Tanglewood Numbers is, hands down, the most thorough Silver Jews album in sound and spirit. The songs carry a certain saddle-sore wisdom that speaks of an appreciation for a life touched by marriage, semi-stardom, addiction and other lessons that Berman might've learned from playing Monopoly with, say, Royal Trux.
"Punks in the Beerlight" kicks everything off, trashing the place in the name of romance and framing the concept. The remainder of the album becomes a process of sorting through the leftover chaos of post-party depression, yet it plays like a courtship with life that culminates in the powerful closer, "There Is a Place."
A delirious invitation to love, "K-Hole" hibernates in a den of cosmic guitar slides and poetic yearning until Berman's sentiments emerge into the natural wonders of God's country with "Animal Shapes." These songs' humble brilliance wears the marks of a Southerner's tender grasp on the power of proverb.
But the sound of Tanglewood Numbers is far from proverbial. Rescued from fires that consumed the legendary Easley-McCain Studios in Memphis, the record feels earthy and alive. To wit: Amidst the fiddling warmth of "The Poor, the Fair and the Good" glides a bit of Deadheaded, electric-banjo boogie that swings through saloon doors into the whiskey-sweet harmonies of "Sleeping Is the Only Love." And only after a long, strange trip through personal metaphor does Berman check into "The Farmer's Hotel," only to shape Silver Jews' sense of place into a point of no return before Tanglewood Numbers fully unravels into a beautiful pile of threads.
Sealing it all up with a brazen rock finish, Berman punctuates his concept in profound self-reflection: "There is a place past the blues I never want to see again."