Near the end of a broken-up cell-phone call with Dan Bern, who's somewhere in the middle of yet another tour, I ask the singer-songwriter what he would do for inspiration should the world ever suddenly clean up its act. Given that Bern is most widely known for his clever and often cutting sociopolitical commentary (and that his new record deals almost exclusively with how badly he feels the current U.S. administration is fucking things up), his answer is somewhat surprising:"I'd be thrilled to just be able to write a bunch of love songs. I'd become a nature writer," says the Midwestern firebrand with a laugh. "I'm very happy to write cowboy songs. In fact, I've got a whole record of 'em, just kind of waiting I thought last year about this time, 'OK, I'm going to take a break for a while, I've got these great songs about the Southwest, and I finally get to do 'em.'
"And things stated getting crazier and crazier. I couldn't just forget about the world, what's going on."
With politics and world events continuing to occupy a larger election-year center stage than they have in decades, it looks like Bern's more pastoral tendencies will remain on hold for the foreseeable future. That's OK too, though; he considers himself as much a product of his influences as of the times, and many of those influences fit neatly into the long line of America's most outspoken practitioners of music-as-cultural-mirror.
"That's really the branch of folk music that I came out of, and was inspired by," Bern says of the protest-singer tradition. "The grand litany, you know? Woody and Dylan and Phillips, Springsteen, Billy Bragg. That's the big folk thing that I always felt a part of. Songs like this have always been a part of what I do, and kind of come naturally. When it feels to me that something needs to be said about something that's going on, well, I know how to approach writing that song."
Bern's latest release, the unflinching EP My Country II, takes a singularly focused look at "something that's going on." The disc's eight tunes all center, to varying degrees, on the elements, actions and fallout of the Bush administration. Some, like the evocative "The Torn Flag" — for which Bern set the poem of the same name by legendary folk activist Pete Seeger to a spare handful of moody guitar chords — lend a contemporary context to time-honored meditations on the definition of freedom. Others are far more direct.
Like the closing tune, for instance — it's called "Bush Must Be Defeated."
Musically, My America II occasionally augments Bern's acoustic guitar and raw, trebly vocals with the full-band accompaniment of what he calls the IJBC ("It stands for International Jewish Banking Conspiracy — just in case anyone wasn't sure who's behind that, it's us"). The treatment lends tracks like the lengthy, rollicking "President" and slightly reggae-fied title track a more accessible feel. Bern is still arguably at his best in solo mode, however, as he will be on his current jaunt supporting the similarly branded Ani DiFranco on her appropriately titled "Vote Dammit!" swing through the swing states.
In a climate where every musician seems to have an opinion on the Executive Branch, even if that opinion is that musicians shouldn't have them, the EP is still a comparatively ballsy document. But Bern denies any sort of should-I-or-shouldn't-I hemming and hawing during its conception.
"There was really no hesitation. These songs were coming out, and it was kind of a question of 'if not now, when?'" he says. "[The political element has] always kind of been there, but you know, there's always a battle between internal and external [subject matter]. This time, the external stuff clearly won out, and everything else got put on hold."
Though his output has consistently been peppered with such observations and commentary, Bern doesn't consider it a responsibility of all artists to put their political two cents in.
"Only if they felt it," he says. "I wouldn't say it should be forced. If somebody has embraced abstraction in their art to a degree that it doesn't make any sense to point to something and say 'this ain't right,' then they shouldn't do it.
"Conversely," he adds, "if you're feeling it, and if it makes sense, then there's no reason to wait until you're accepting Oscars and Grammys to speak out about something."
For better or worse, Bern himself has gotten a reputation as the guy who's going to speak out about something; pedestrian music fans who don't know much about him, know him as "the political roots-rock guy" or "the funny political-folk guy" or "the angry radical songwriter guy," as opposed to "the guy who writes songs about a lot of things, politics being one of them." And like many singer-songwriters before him, that particular facet of his talent (along with his voice) has inspired many to foist upon him the status of The Next Bob Dylan — it's virtually impossible to read an article about Bern without tripping over the folk icon's name. It's not something that's likely to change anytime soon; in fact, with populist, politically motivated music currently getting the kind of attention it hasn't enjoyed since Vietnam, Bern will probably be subjected to the comparison more frequently than ever.
Fortunately, there's no known way to make an insult out of saying that a singer-songwriter reminds one of Bob Dylan.
"I've kind of gotten used to it, out of necessity," Bern says. "I think everybody that comes along that writes a certain way I'm from the Midwest and I'm Jewish and I play the harmonica and whatever. Of course, people are gonna think about that.
"I think at times I've very much tried to get away from it, and right now I'm back to playing by myself, and railing against the ruling elite, so if people wanna hark back to that I think I got as much from Woody as from Bob, but it all filters down.
"And, I'd rather be compared to him than to Barry Manilow."