It's been over two and a half years since David Berman last flung open the doors to his much coveted mental closet of worldly wisdom and on that occasion he left us with tales of "a place past the blues I never want to see again," and threatening to take "a hammer to it all." A rare tour accompanied the release of Tanglewood Numbers but then the doors were fastened shut once more and the world was lonely again. With these terminal words left ringing in our ears what were we to expect from the followup to Tanglewood's dark vista?
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea sees a few returning members for a tried and tested Silver Jews line up in the form of Tony Crow, Brian Kotzur and the twin-ax attack of Peyton Pinkerton (Natural Bridge) and William Tyler (Bright Flight) who all join Berman and wife Cassie who, as usual, provides warmth and texture to much of the background space. In tone and content it's a fascinating addition to the puzzle that Berman has been relentlessly and stubbornly crafting since this band's conception in 1989. It stands alone from any other Jews album in terms of its relationship with the world and provides us with a valuable insight into this artist's shift in consciousness. And a shift is exactly what Lookout Mountain marks but, as might be expected with Berman, it's not the shift one would expect. Berman's opinions, beliefs, outlooks and observations remain firmly the same and provide the linking trail back to the other records, but it's Berman's viewpoint on these things that has changed. The world according to the Silver Jews has always been described through its minutiae, in all its tragic detail, but there is a sense of resolution in these songs that breathes new life into their whispering lungs. Instead of bitterness or anger there is a newfound tenderness for our culture but instead of emerging as celebration this tenderness brings with it feelings of pity. Berman's resolution acknowledges this pity and where his previous albums would leave it there, Lookout Mountain strives for a sense of warning. Where previous albums posed questions, this sixth addition provides the answers.
"What was not but could have been, was my obsession way back when./ Now I just remember this, what is not but could be if." And so this seismic shift is seen in full glory in the first verse of the opening song. The statement of lack remains in place but the gaze is turned forward to the future and a new feeling of hope is introduced. With the economic delivery of a Japanese Haiku poem, Berman relays his wisdom with mono-syllabic accuracy in this opener and with it a multi-faceted, new vernacular is born. But this look to the future is no unconditional march into greener pastures. Berman's new hope is full of lament for the past. The future as seen in Suffering Jukebox has no place for the past that Berman once belonged to. It tells of this sad machine in a "happy town, over in the corner breaking down." Could this machine be Berman himself, trying to impart a wisdom to a world that is happy enough without it? Or it could it be a comment on music's place in our society too preoccupied with the "cult of number one"? After-all, the jukebox, though neglected, is "all filled up with what other people need." Is this money or music itself?
This is echoed on Strange Victory, Strange Defeat when Berman talks of all the "handsome grandsons in these rock band magasines," and asks "what have they done with the fat ones, the bald and the goateed?" This song revisits a songwriting method that is well tested. Berman has a unique ability to describe man's follies by way of the absurd and often using animals, be it a "kitten from Great Britain" or as seen here, "Squirrels imported from Conneticut, just in time for fall." This song tells of a squirrel uprising against what Berman calls "a nightmare world of craven mediocrity." With wife, Cassie in assistance the squirrels call out "We're coming out of the black patch! / We're coming out of the pocket! / We're calling into question / such virtues gone to seed!" This is a reference to an Emerson quote in which he describes Fashion as a "Virtue gone to seed." So Berman is mounting an uprising against this new culture of seeming victories that ultimately end in "strange defeats." It's a culture that promises to be a lot more fun but as Berman asks, "how much fun is a lot more fun? / Not much fun at all."
Lookout Mountain also sees Berman assume a new style of writing in the form of a greater reliance on narrative. The first person shifts to the third with his observations being played out by a myriad of protagonists in far fetched and highly entertaining stories. This is seen most notable in the centerpiece of the record San Francisco B.C. It tells the story of a failed relationship that leads to all sorts of drama including Mafioso QVC operators, jewelry heists and murder mystery. It's one of the first time Berman's expert turn-of-phrase has been put to such a use and you hang on his every word for gems like "he came at me with some fist cuisine." It's the best brawl description since "a can of whoop-ass." With slightly less success and complete with seagull noises, Party Barge employs the same grasp of narrative and together they seem to allow Berman an added freedom that he had only ever enjoyed by putting animals in human situations. The characters are never that far removed from Berman himself and almost represent different facets of his complex character.
The record ends in a way no other has done before and in this ending the great Silver Jews shift is complete. We Could Be Looking For The Same Thing is a love song first of all, but a love song that only Berman could have written. In lines like "We could belong to each other / If you're not seeing anyone," we see Berman's ability to juxtapose the ultimate with the intimate, destiny with monotony. But it also sets up a love story from the point of view of two people at a later and more resourceful stage in their lives where they haven't so much downgraded their hope, but have become more realistic in their search for destiny. With this in mind, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is Berman accepting the faults of this existence but seeming more comfortable with their existence. In tone and content this record acts as a removal from the bad in society while still acknowledging that it exists for other people. It almost represents a truth that someone can emerge the other side and still be intact. In this respect it's a triumphant record but in a very realistic way. At just over half an hour it is more compact or concise. It comes from a less fragile place than his previous writings and displays this artist's unique and all too rare respect and appreciation for language. If society is indeed seen and experienced through the critical eyes of our artists then Berman is an essential addition.