New American Language
First Appeared at The Music Box, December 2001, Volume 8, #12
Written by John Metzger
Like Loudon Wainwright, Dan Bern mixes pop culture with personal reflection, humor with cerebral eloquence. His acerbic wit can sometimes be a bitter pill to swallow, but in the blink of an eye he easily can shift gears to reveal the most intimately tender moments. His latest disc New American Language finds Bern continuing in this vein, tackling everything from the debacle of the recent presidential election to America's fast-food culture to the shallowness of human understanding — often with the most hilarious insights. On Alaskan Highway, he sings, "I would never be so dumb/to say they stole an election/They bought the damn thing/fair and square," and on Tape, he declares, "We might get to see World War Three by Thanksgiving Day/But as long as the turkey's golden brown it's all gonna be ok."
Once again, Bern brandishes his songs with the folk-rock swagger of The Byrds and Bob Dylan, while adding in a touch of punk-rock angst à la Elvis Costello. Black Tornado crackles as Bern unleashes his frustration with the music business and life on the road, while Sweetness sizzles with its radio-friendly blend of jangly guitars and infectious melodies. On the album's concluding track Thanksgiving Day Parade, Bern unveils a lengthy, rambling homage to Dylan's Desolation Row — copping not only the song's familiar riff, but also its rhythmic flow and its strange progression of esoterically surreal imagery. Yet Bern takes Thanksgiving Day Parade a step further, adding instruments one by one to build a fully orchestrated, grand, and majestic folk song of epic proportions.
Throughout his career, Bern has taken a bit of flak from critics who can't get past his sense of humor or the way he often leans on the musical styles of his predecessors. It's a shame really, for Bern (along with Matthew Ryan, Jeff Tweedy, Steve Earle, John Wesley Harding, and Ryan Adams) is surely one of the great songwriters to emerge in recent years. New American Language is definitely Bern's most mature album to date, yet his delightful playfulness remains intact as he continues to skewer society with a smile. Although Bern has yet to recapture the magic of his debut, New American Language comes pretty close.
New American Language is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2001 The Music Box