Space to breathe

As he heads back on the road, Dan Bern brings some of his most personal songs to date

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click to enlarge JUST BREATHE: Despite having written an abundance of "cowboy songs," Dan Bern's latest sticks to classically narrative and observational tunes. - Judd Irish Bradley
Judd Irish Bradley
JUST BREATHE: Despite having written an abundance of "cowboy songs," Dan Bern's latest sticks to classically narrative and observational tunes.

When Dan Bern spoke to this publication two years ago, the lauded singer-songwriter was in the midst of his own politico-musical crusade, touring behind his timely, pointed release My Country II (Songs to Beat Bush By). Every song on that lengthy election-year EP was focused specifically on the goal of railroading the incumbent president out of office. Like Dylan — to whom the ragged-voiced Bern is endlessly compared — he'd willingly taken up the mantle of the protest singer, and offered his opinions from a singular and singularly expressed perspective, rather than having it foisted upon him.

But also like Dylan, there's far more to Bern than social outrage. In the time since Bush's reelection, he's moved on, and focused on themes both more personal and universal. His latest album, Breathe, may be Bern's least political to date, at least with regard to the term's narrowest and most obvious definition.

"A couple of years ago, there was an election, obviously, and it seemed like a golden opportunity to try to change some things," he says. "That kind of overrode everything else at the time. And then, you know, you get back to your own business."

Bern has never been an artist to reside comfortably in any one niche. Over the years, his dozen-odd releases have been called, and could be reasonably defended as, everything from folk to roots-rock to pop to alt-country. But he himself has little use for such terms. ("For about three seconds, you sort of roll it around in your mouth," he says, "then it's about getting gas and deciding what soda you're gonna buy at the 7-Eleven.") And he makes no apologies for the little shifts and experiments that come and go in his own work.

In the '04 interview, Bern alluded to a batch of self-described "cowboy songs" he'd been amassing, and planning to release, when the desire to make a strong political statement intervened — hence, My Country II. These days, Bern doesn't just remember those cowboy songs; he's added considerably to them. Don't go looking for them on Breathe, however. As before, the songwriter was struck by another new and overriding inspiration, which resulted in the more classically narrative and observational tunes that people the new disc.

"That batch of [cowboy songs] has actually grown, to the point where it was, if we had gone ahead and done that, we would've had two or three records' worth of stuff," muses Bern. "This stuff had a little bit of urgency, a timeless urgency I guess I'd call it — this batch kind of just wanted to get out. It wasn't a terribly hard decision to say, 'Well, let's just wait on this stuff until we can spend some time with it.' But I haven't forgotten."

Hailed as the most fully realized Dan Bern effort to date, Breathe is very much a "singer-songwriter record." Full of stories, first-person philosophizing and deceptively personal analogies and details, the songs on Breathe take universal ideas and make them resonant through the intimacy of personal insight and experience — they take the big things and make them pocket-sized, song-sized. In the title track, Bern finds amnesty from his chaotic lifestyle, and everyone else's, in the simple act of stopping to "Breathe;" in "Another Man's Clothes," he uses a simple, apt metaphor to try on a different state of mind. Throughout the CD, perilously weighty opinions, suspicions and existential questions are parsed into concise, catchy and often moving little vignettes.

"I think 'Suicide Room' is kind of like that, too," says Bern. "It's just the full idea, it seems very suited to song form. It doesn't leave anything out."

Which isn't to say, though, that this very "singer-songwriter record" is a predictable, strummy, mid-tempo exercise in tried-and-true folkie territory. Delivering his lyrics in a tenor both reedy and gritty, and often backed by a full band, Bern knows when to groove, when to stomp and when to back off — and Breathe's dynamism is surely a large part of the reason why it's being called a highwater mark in Bern's catalog to date. And why he gets tagged with so many various genre assignations, as well.

After a period of time taken in his adopted home state of New Mexico for, as he puts it, "like the song says, breathin'," Bern is back on the road with an interesting new lineup — comprised of a second guitar, violin and hand percussion — and a new spate of songs to play for his loyal, disparate fanbase. It's a place the hard-touring performer, like most independent artists, knows well. Sometimes too well, but Bern says the break served its purpose and that he's ready to get back to the road lifestyle, at least for now:

"When I did feel that way, I got off [the road]," he says. "Hopefully there's a freshness again. It's different, it's never like it was the first time, but then that's true about a lot of things."

And maybe after his current tour jaunt, he'll finally be able to get that batch of cowboy songs committed to tape.

If some other inspiration doesn't impose itself on him first.

"Well, I think at some point, even if there is another batch, I'll be able to just record, a lot, for a while," he says. "So that even if there's another record, there's other kinds of songs. It won't be so much of an either-or. That's what I'd like."

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