You might just call Silver Jews a Pavement side project, but that would be too easy. Yes, it is true that the latter’s Bob Nastanovic and Stephen Malkmus have contributed significantly to the Silver Jews legacy over the past 10 years and more, but the main Jew is poet and singer/songwriter David Berman.
Tanglewood Numbers is, it seems, the first Silver Jews effort in four long years, and, perhaps more significantly, their first outing since Berman’s attempted suicide following a prolonged bout of depression. Is this why the occasionally irksome Malkmus has returned to the fray once again, despite his distaste for Berman’s use of the Silver Jews monicker without him in the ’90s? Who knows.
Curiously enough, however, the album purveys none of the painful meandering so commonly associated with those small town, plaid-wearing fellows (and even more commonly associated with those recovering from depression). Indeed, it’s almost as if Berman has clung on to his lumberjack shirt, but is instead wearing it around his waist in order to show off a swanky new t-shirt with “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” emblazoned across the chest. This is hope.
As has already been duly noted by Berman’s long-time followers, the Malkmus special sauce is all over Tanglewood Numbers: curious licks spring up every now and then, and ever more layers are revealed in due course. Tracks like Punks In The Beerlight and the beautifully rendered Sometimes A Pony Gets Depressed are pitch-perfect updates of the early ’90s sound that made stars of such unassuming characters on occasion.
Let’s not sell Berman short, though – this is all him. A thoroughly-realised message of slow recovery takes form throughout the ten tracks, hopping medium from irreverent lyrics and bizarre-yet-profound sentiments to cutesy song titles, deadpan posturing and the timeless, touching elements of alt-country.
There are, inevitably, certain tracks that don’t quite hit the mark (Animal Shapes is enjoyable but slightly anonymous; The Farmer’s Hotel is a blast, but far too long), Tanglewood Numbers remains a coherent prospect. For all the Berman eccentricities on offer, he absolutely means every word he sings. The result? An fascinating, likeable collection of songs held together by a great deal of perspective from a man of trying experience.