If Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is any indication, David Berman’s fortunes are improving. Compared to 2005’s knotty, uneven Tanglewood Numbers – which arrived on the heels of an extended period wherein the poet and Silver Jews frontman grappled with medical and substance-abuse problems – it’s relatively frisky and oblique. Numbers found Berman at his most lyrically exposed, his tentative vocals felt out-of-sorts and disembodied, and the brusque live performances rightly suggested an addict struggling through detox.
Lookout eases the group back into the
country-rock gulch that’s always been their comfort zone, humming with loose-limbed humor that smells like post-crisis normalcy. The twangy, contented “Candy Jail” may or may not refer to the sweets recovering addicts tend to gorge on, but Berman’s imagery is more confining than delicious: “Life in a candy jail/Peppermint bars/Peanut-brittle bunk beds and marshmallow walls.” Elsewhere, he indulges in the sort of transgressive playacting erstwhile Silver Jew Stephen Malkmus explored earlier this year on Real Emotional Trash, albeit with greater success and minus all that gratuitous jamming. The faux Creedence Clearwater Revival chug of “San Francisco B.C.” showcases Berman’s dry, pithy wit and eye for narrative detail: A soon-to-be-splitsville couple “had sarcastic hair/We used lewd pseudonyms,” a murderous crook’s ’do “was neatly trimmed but a patch was bare/I knew it wasn’t New Wave/It was human error.” Strewn with foghorns, chirps, bells and active machine-tool samples – not to mention bassist Cassie Berman’s spoof CB rescue communiqués and sonorous “ooooo”s – the bowlegged, steamboating “Party Barge” serves double duty as a merrily meaningless good-time tune and a repository of random verses like “Chicken-fried pigeon in a Sonny James sauce/Satan’s jeweled lobster has your wife in his claws.” These playful absurdities share aluminum with a coded entreaty to his peers to step up their game (“Strange Victory, Strange Defeat”), a Nashville-as-fuck ode to every bar’s loneliest inhabitant (“Suffering Jukebox”) and the latest in Berman’s never-ending string of broken-down but affecting love songs.