“When I tell you that I love you don’t test my love, accept my love, don’t test my love, ‘cause maybe I don’t love you all that much.” – from “Jerusalem” (Dog Boy Van EP, Dan Bern)
That’s a bold way to introduce oneself to the world and with both his first EP and full-length debut, Dan Bern did it twice. If you look at the words long enough or hear them sung enough times you can see it all right there, the lifeline that runs through one of the most consistently strong songwriting careers this side of <BLANK> (You can fill this in with any songwriter you like that was going before 1996). It’s a short simple string of words that is at once audacious, painfully self-aware, slightly nihilistic, dripping with feeling and most importantly (?) very Funny.
I discovered the music of Dan Bern sometime around my last couple of years in high school, when I was just starting to fumble around in the dark, attempting to carve an identity for myself. By this time, Bern had released three full-length records (Dan Bern, Fifty Eggs & Smartie Mine), so there was a lot to devour. A music nerd from my youngest days I was pretty well versed in guys with guitars, but I’d never heard anything like this. Listening to these first few Bern records broke something important in my head, set it free and permanently changed my core temperature. It’s difficult to overstate the importance this man’s music has held in my life and as such, don’t read on looking for scathing criticism (Spoiler: I'm a fan of his work across the board), but rather to remember or learn some stuff about one of the great songwriters of our time and the important connections made between people and art.
Dan Bern (1997)
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: I can’t imagine how awful it must be to have a singing voice that naturally falls anywhere near that of Bob Dylan. It has to be incredible frustrating trying to sing your thoughtful, poetic songs when you sound even remotely similar to that guy. Every time I’ve put this album on for someone new in my life, they inevitably comment on it or even ask if it’s Dylan. Listen to the words, obviously it’s not. They both deal in the depths of human emotions and both do it with a wink, but where Dylan is almost always going through your brain, Bern wants to make his inroads through your heart. They are different beasts entirely. There, we’ve addressed this early elephant in the room. Let’s continue…
It’s hard for me to argue with anything on Dan Bern. It’s brimming with energy throughout. The production is bright and crisp. And the songs – a batch of 11 strong, sharp songs. It’s a folk record to be sure, but there’s a sneering punk-leaning aesthetic permeating the record, keeping it from ever sounding inconsequential. Sometimes the sneer flirts with grating territory, like the screeching wail of “My love, go to sleeeeeep…” (from “Go To Sleep”), but this is a folk guy influenced by Kurt Cobian, fuelled by piss and vinegar. It’s easy to dig.
The quiet moments here are the ones that stuck in my ears first. The aforementioned “Jerusalem” and the truly heart-wrenching “Wasteland,” but it’s the short punches to the ear that have sunk in the deepest over the years. “King of the World” is a delightfully snarky fantastical reverie and “Go to Sleep” thumps on the encroachingly bizarre over-use of technology over frantic electric guitar strumming. Neither song could be a hit on any chart but they capture a selfish sort of confusion, instantly recognizable to a certain kind of listener. (I can’t define this listener per se, but if you’re here reading this you probably fall into that camp, new friend.) “I’m Not the Guy” is the first real proof that the guy can write a really solid pop song. It’s a love song that isn’t overly cheesy and has a great sing-along hook.
This album gave us a number of songs that remain staples in Bern’s live repertoire to this day and for a guy with so many songs written (Many of them never released), that’s saying a lot. “Estelle” is the first of many 7+ minute songs we’re going to encounter on our journey and each time I listen to it, it gets more beautiful. Right smack dab in the middle of a song told from one person’s very specific (and wholly engaging) point of view there’s the refrain “You know sometimes it feels like there’s so much that you need, sometimes the world is upside down/Sometimes it feels like the only thing that you need, is holdin’ someone’s hand as you walk through town.” Each time that chorus presents itself you get that feeling where someone says what we’re all thinking but are too afraid to say out loud. It’s a really effective weapon in any kind of art and one that Bern is better at deploying than anyone I’ve ever come across.
Key Songs: “Jerusalem,” “Too Late to Die Young,” “Estelle,” I’m Not the Guy”
Fifty Eggs (1998)
Like many people, “Tiger Woods” was the first Bern song I ever heard. “I got big balls, big ol’ balls,” is a commanding way to start a song, even a blindsidingly sad song about dealing with deep disappointment and confusion. As such, this is the first album of his I got my hands on and listened to front to back. “Tiger Woods” is good and memorable, but it’s not even in the top five on Fifty Eggs, arguably the least strong record of the entire catalogue.
It’s not that Fifty Eggs is a bad record, or that even contains bad songs. As usual, there is an astounding dearth of misses here, with nearly all the songs doing something different in the way they attack their subject matter, trying something new. Some of the songs here are even career highlights like the wrenching “Oh Sister,” and “Everybody’s Baby,” maybe Bern’s finest vocal recording to date. “One Dance” is one of the best unrequited love songs you’re ever going to hear and “Monica” is a left-field tribute to an all-time tennis great. There’s a song about aliens fucking monkeys (“No Missing Link”) and the disparate worlds black and white folks occupy (“Different Worlds”) – All the makings of a great record are there. It’s just with this batch of the songs you never get the feel of connectivity, a unified whole, that Bern’s records usually present.
Maybe it’s the production on here? It’s big and bright and shiny, maybe even too much so. But now, that sounds like a young man’s argument doesn’t it? He sold out! He got the chance to use better recording techniques and he took advantage of it…HOW DARE HE! I’m grasping at straws here in a desperate attempt not to heap too much praise on the Man. I mean, he’s writing unique songs, trying new sounds – dude even plays a damned cello on “No Missing Link” – even if they falter once in awhile, kudos needs to be given for the effort, especially on your second release. Using/risking your momentum to try something wholly new should always be commended.
Key Songs: “Tiger Woods,” “One Dance,” “Oh Sister”
Smartie Mine (1998)
I don’t know what Dan Bern was doing in 1998 that he managed to release all of this music, but he probably should have been tested for PEDs because homey must have been juicing. I mean, Fifty Eggs and now this, Smartie Mine, a sprawling double-disc album containing over two-dozen songs of mostly astounding quality?
There's no other album in his catalogue that gives Bern so much room to spin around and rage against the machine. The sound is raw, far less glossy than Fifty Eggs. This is where I found that DIY, punk-rock sneer in Bern that locked me in as a fan for life. When he lashes out on "Beautiful Trees," struggling to figure out his own masculinity, the realness is more than palpable. The songs here offer moment after moment imbued with the ability to chip away at the scar-battered lairs of human existence, getting to the gooey, warm insides in all of us. "Chelsea Hotel," probably considered a Bern 'staple,' is a love song of the highest order. "Tiger Woods" and "One Thing Real" hit harder than they did on Fifty Eggs. "Talkin' Woody, Bob, Bruce & Dan Blues" is...well, that's a hard one to describe here because there's just too much to going on, but it needs to be mentioned because it's awesome. Also, Bern's impression of the Boss is tops. "Joe Van Gogh" and "Gamblin' with My Love (Pete Rose)" are quintessential Bern, mining cultural icons in search of personal truths. "True Revolutionaries" is one of the great political Dan Bern songs (Of which there are many) but being buried at the end of over two hours of music, it might be one of the most overlooked. Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, disregard that comment if you have the truncated single-disc, 11-track version of the record. Also, feel bad if you have that one, because you're missing out on a ton of stuff.
Key Songs: "Gamblin' with my Love (Pete Rose)," "True Revolutionaries," "Chelsea Hotel," "Simple"
New American Language (2001)
This is where shit gets serious. I call this the beginning of Dan Bern's "White Period." I have named it such because, barring some EPs which we'll get to, all the discs of this next period came in the jewel cases with the solid white spines. Remember, this is 2001, CDs were still popular. This was the first album of Bern's I bought on release week and as such, it was the first one I devoured end to end, in the most personal of ways. (Props to Lyle's Place, here in Victoria, BC, over 30 years. Support your local record stores!)
New American Language is the first record that feels like Bern turning his gaze inward more intensely than ever. "God Said No" may be framed as a one-on-one with the Almighty, but it's really a powerful meditation on the self and one's place in the world. "Black Tornado, "Turning Over" and the title track have all become indispensable parts of my growing up. I come back to them time and time again in times of stress, or more commonly, confusion. Try to listen to Bern sing "Don't let your heart get broken by this world," on "Albuquerque Lullaby" and feel bad...I promise you, you cannot do it. It is impossible. No matter how bad things get in the world, that song exists, for all times. I am comforted by this.
As far as I know, this is also the first of Bern's records with the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy, one of the best-named bands of all time. When everyone fires up on "Alaska Highway" or the opener "Sweetness" the results are magical. Then there's the beautiful cacophonous build of "Thanksgiving Day Parade." I dream of a time when I know of enough musicians that we can walk down main street together, as friends, taking turns singing this song. The chords are easy. Learn it and maybe we can meet up one day.
Key Songs: "Albuquerque Lullaby," "New American Language," "God Said No"
Fleeting Days (2003)
There's something very classicist sounding happening on Fleeting Days. I've never really been able to put my finger on what it is exactly, but songs like "Chain Around My Neck" and "Graceland" remind me of a time I didn't live in, so I guess I can't be sure that time ever existed, but I feel it somewhere in my bones. But really, there are far more tangible things to grasp onto here - Many, many glorious things.
The love songs, "Eva" and "I Need You" are top-flight mush songs, mining the Bible and all kinds of literary touchstones respectively. Not in love anymore? Maybe "Baby Bye Bye" is the break-up song you need. It's not bitter or hateful to lost love in any way, but rather soft and thankful for a time passed. "Soul" is a top-flight love song for human spirit. "Are you gonna follow your soul or just the style of the day?" is a mantra I've come back to time and time again when I'm doubting my own path.
As great as this record is, for me, at the end of the day it comes down to two songs, "City" and "Fly Away." Now, when I'm stomping around town with my headphones on I usually have hip-hop blasting my ears. But I have yet to find a better 1-2 combo in all of music for doing said walking. "City," with it's incredibly bendy guitar notes, is an utterly sublime contemplation on perception and a great ode to our bustling hives. It also contains my second favourite guitar solo of all time. (It still can't quite top the one in Tom Petty's "Good To Be King." But it's a close second.) And then we come to "Fly Away." In a catalogue I revere for its lyrical scope and density, "Fly Away" might be my favourite set of lyrics I've ever heard Bern sing, which puts it high in the running for favourite of all-time. It's self-deprecating, ponders the inner and outer worlds, is confident and schizophrenic at once. The music builds and builds with the words and by the time Bern is singing about computers, email, evil politicians and every other corrosive force stripping away at our sanity, you've hit a frantic downward apex, draining you of your false stability. You are not paranoid. You are a little bit crazy. But so is Bern and so am I and so is everyone else you know. It's okay. Follow your soul.
Key songs: "Baby Bye Bye," "Fly Away," "City," "I Need You"
This may sound like a bit of an overstatement, but I promise it's the whole and utter truth: Dan Bern's Breathe helped me become an adult person. I was far into what would be considered adulthood by the time this album was released but never really felt like one, whatever that even means. There is so much feeling here that the album is practically bursting. It drips with heart in a way that I still find jarring. "Remember Me" and "Suicide Room" are too much for me to take most days and they still get me close to ears every time I hear them. "Past Belief" changed my core temperature for good and it DOES get me to ears each and every time it comes on. (Always around the lines "...You gotta have dreams, I've heard about what happens at the other extremes/Without those dreams you go insane, it's like having mayonnaise shot into your brain...") These songs have become blueprints for how to absorb and process my own feelings and thoughts.
The more obvious touchstones here are probably "Another Man's Clothes" and "Feel Like A Man." Both songs follow a lonely path through rocky terrain, attempting to locate masculine identity in an evolving, and often isolating, word. Having spent my childhood raised mainly by my single mother I've spent much of my life looking for father figures in music, books and film. Sometimes find that guidance is as simple as seeing Brando on the screen as a young man, or getting a real grown-up haircut or something as simple as a jacket, and sometimes it's the most elusive thing in the world. Breathe remains my favourite Dan Bern album and a top-10 all-time in my collection and I can't imagine anything in the entire universe ever taking away from its importance to me. If you only listen to one album on this list, or if this a Bern album you passed over for some reason, please find it with haste and get it into your ears.
Key Songs: "Breathe," "Another Man's Clothes," "Past Belief"
Next Up: The EPs