Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Folk Implosion

Talented singer follows predictable path

By Michael McCall

Dan Bern is discovering what happens to smart, talented guys who play acoustic guitar and sing rambling, wordy songs in a scratchy, nasal voice. First they're greeted with immense enthusiasm from hungry talent scouts and music critics. Then they're compared to Bob Dylan and spend the rest of their careers living down the unreasonable expectations imposed on them. They end up performing to a faithful, fanatic cult of fans who pile into clubs and small theaters to hear new songs and sing along to old favorites.

Boston music critic wrote in a concert review, "Thirty-five years ago they whispered the name Bob Dylan. Last night they whispered the name Dan Bern." The hype had hit high gear by the fall of 1996, when the Sony-affiliated Work Group released a six-song EP, Dog Boy Van, amid a great deal of hoopla. At the time, an established West Coast music journalist predicted that Bern would be a major star within a year. Bern began 1997 by releasing a full-length, self-titled album, which sent the Work Group into a full-on promotional attack. Six months later, Bern has yet to draw much attention beyond an enthusiastic critical response.

Bern knows that the odds of climbing to the top as an acoustic performer are slim, which is why he's focusing on songs likely to make the most noise possible. As outrageously outspoken as any other wise-guy intellectual, Bern has chosen to emphasize his bold point of view and his brash humor over his more sensitive material. And what better way to stir the media coals than by declaring oneself God while writing songs about Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe, and the Oklahoma City bombing? "I am the Messiah," Bern declares on "Jerusalem," which opens both his EP and his LP. The tune doesn't hold this prime spot just because Bern thinks it's the best way for people to meet his music; he knows that firing off outlandish lyrics is his best shot at earning headlines.

There have been similarly audacious acoustic upstarts in modern times, among them John Prine, Loudon Wainwright, Steve Forbert, Billy Bragg, and Todd Snider. But not since John Wesley Harding proclaimed himself the bastard son of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez has a male singer-songwriter so brazenly positioned himself as the next New Dylan. In concert, Bern even performs an unrecorded song called "Bob & Woody & Dan & Bruce," in which he links himself to Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Bruce Springsteen, then has the nerve to call some of these artists down as self-aggrandizing. Bern lambastes Dylan, suggesting the legendary singer used Guthrie's death as a career springboard. Then he casts about for another hero. He examines Springsteen, finding great substance and equally great faults, before musing that perhaps Madonna or Prince would be better role models for him. As with much of Bern's work, "Bob & Woody & Dan & Bruce" is alternately ridiculous and humorous; he makes as much fun of himself as he does of anyone else, but self-deprecation doesn't sting nearly as much as other people's darts.

Bern's songs are like that. Does he write about celebrity icons and front-page news because they're rich topics for commentary, or because they have great potential for attracting attention and controversy? The answer is both: Bern pokes at modern obsessions with fame, commercialism, and vanity while using the same flash points to build his own name, sell his own work, and tout his own brilliance. To get away with it, he would have to be awfully damn clever. And sometimes he is--but not always.

In "Jerusalem," he only declares himself the Messiah because nearly every religion so desperately believes the arrival of one is imminent. In the same song, he predicts that he'll be called "Dylan-esque" while noting the limitations imposed on anyone who finds himself labeled to fit a preconceived marketing niche. "If you must put me in a box," he sings, "make sure it's a big box with lots of windows and a door to walk through and a nice high chimney, so we can burn everything we don't like."

Running commentary Dan Bern has been compared to Dylan, but he has yet to show his predecessor's breadth. Photo by Mick Haggerty.
In "Marilyn," Bern creates a blithe, catchy sing-along that suggests Monroe would have been better off if she had married author Henry Miller rather than playwright Arthur Miller. Although he's quick to point out that Death of a Salesman is his favorite play, he believes Marilyn would have been better off with Henry because the writer would have taken her to Paris, given her opium to smoke, fucked her every day, and tied her to the bed on occasion. That way, "she would have felt like a woman and not a photograph in a magazine," Bern sings.

Elsewhere, however, Bern's celebrity commentary is more predictable. In "Too Late to Die Young," he contrasts the fates of Elvis Presley and James Dean, suggesting that Presley's death was "a mercy killing" and that the King would have been better off dying young and sliding straight "to souvenir city and T-shirt town." In "Kurt," he rhymes Cobain with "blew out his brain" before making a few obvious comparisons about how tragic, premature deaths helped make martyrs of John F. Kennedy, Jesse James, and Joan of Arc.

Bern fares better when confronting hot social issues. In "Oklahoma," he begins as if basing the song on initial news bytes from CNN. He moves from details and statistics and early theories that the bombing was the work of foreign terrorists to the shock Americans felt when they discovered the perpetrator was a U.S. citizen who served honorably in the Gulf War. From there, Bern suggests that the military mind-set breeds a kind of simplistic hatred that ultimately results in individuals believing lives can be sacrificed in the name of ideals.

The best of Bern's socio-political songs is "Wasteland," in which he surveys his generation and finds "the smartest of them all moonlighting as a word processor, the strongest of them all checking IDs outside saloons, and the prettiest of them all taking off her clothes in front of men...." In the end, he suggests, America isn't about encouraging the stuff of dreams; it's simply about settling for making a little money.

Bern's emphasis on jousting tender spots in the American psyche obscures his talent for creating smart, catchy little gems. For all the debate his most-talked-about material is likely to raise, his musical ability shines more consistently in less ambitious songs. In "Never Fall in Love," an accessible and focused acoustic rocker, Bern cites all the absurd things he does to keep from feeling the pressure to find a mate. And in the forceful "I'm Not the Guy," he confronts a fearful lover by pointing out that he's not going to betray her the way other men have.

Chances are that Bern will continue to write songs that draw the loudest, most immediate responses. In our culture, those are likely to be the ones that have all the delicacy of a tabloid typesetter. In the quite Dylan-esque "Talkin' Alien Abduction Blues," Bern finds himself discussing his songwriting limitations in a spaceship. He cheekily complains to his captors that he can't believe they abducted him just so he could talk about how he writes only in the key of G. They respond that they'd love to talk about something else, but that songs were all they found floating around in his brain.

The tune is a good metaphor for Bern's future. Fans might like to hear more from him than biting sarcasm, but for now that's the only part of himself he's exposing. By next year, Bern will likely be writing about how all people want to hear from him are funny, topical songs. Then he'll give them what they want.

Dan Bern plays June 29 at 3rd & Lindsley.

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