If Dan Bern didn’t exist, Jack Kerouac would have met him on the road and invented the character. Huddled over cheap scotch in some post-colonial hotel, the upper floors held up by long white planks and pretty windows that screech in complaint when pulled up, they shelter from the dark night drizzle, talking in slow, low voices. Dan tells Jack of the time he pranked an article he wrote claiming that Bob Dylan’s mother really penned all his songs. Bob was pissed, Bob took his revenge “Dan Bern is a scurrilous little wretch with a hard-on for comedy”. “Hey”, Jack said… “I’ve been called worse, I’ve called people worse, at least Bob Dylan spoke to you, you’ve got that”
Bern is prolific, he’s prolific at writing, song writing and painting, this is his 26th album or EP release, did I mention he’s prolific? Where some would find chaos and disorder, others find adventure and imagination. ‘Regent Street’ is the latest addition to his collection, it’s an album that claps and beats its way into your head. I have no idea what his influences are, but I listen to ‘Theresa Brown’ and if Bern was British, we’d be talking about Ray Davies, and that’s a good thing on our scale of lyric writing.
Maybe you like an album to be variations on a theme. Maybe you don’t like to be surprised, maybe you listen to an artist’s songs because they give you what you want and expect. Dan Bern isn’t offering that; he’s giving you a challenge. He’s going to take you in different directions, it might sometimes seem to be a Cul De Sac, but somewhere he’ll meet you, as the track ‘Not perfect’ suggests, “It’s not perfect, nothing ever is”. What works so well with this album is that is full of randomness, just when you think you’ve got a handle on Dan Bern, he goes and takes you off on his journey of thoughts. Sometimes it’s like trying to nail jelly to a wall, but there you still are, with hammer in hand, willing to give it a go.
‘America without the people’ departs from the often-whimsical writings of Bern, offering a discordant, dystopian view of his home country. The lyrical quality of this song is outstanding, despairing at cruel isolationism and the surrender of unity. It might be a depressing vision, but it’s one that deserves a hearing.
We’re never far away from poking fun though, not so much tongue in cheek as tongue piercing through the cheek and coming out the other side. ‘Dear Tiger Woods’ ponders on Wood’s father’s assertion that Tiger could become a greater humanitarian than Gandhi. It’s nonsense of course and Bern treats it with the sarcasm it deserves, but we shouldn’t ignore the musicianship that accompanies the track. What makes this whole album work is that for all the seemingly offhand lyrics and musings on subjects nobody else would probably consider worth writing about, it’s still the quality of the music that underpins everything.
I can only describe this as eclectic, comedic, political, irreverent. If you put your albums in alphabetical order, you’re lucky, if you put them into genres, good luck with this one.
“Maybe I’m the circus, rolling into town, grab your ticket find a seat, the curtains coming down”. ‘One Song’ is the final track, maybe Dan Bern is the circus, if he rolls into town, make sure you buy a ticket, find a seat, and watch the show.
© Jon Hutchinson 2019