Dan Bern: Breathe

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By Trevor Pour

The Messiah has returned. The release of Breathe, the sixth full length album from the contemporary troubadour Dan Bern, reunites him with old friend and famed producer Chuck Plotkin. Bern is known for his marriage of universal and political themes with deeply personal, introspective lyrics, and with Breathe he adds sleek, polished production. After just a single listen, it’s apparent Breathe isn’t just another Bern album – it’s a turning point in his development.

There’s an allure to Dan Bern that few artists possess. His demeanor is like a wandering minstrel who happens upon a crowd, drinks beer until drunk enough to perform a few favorite songs. I won’t forget seeing my first Bern show, a seated affair in a small corner of East Cleveland. Despite being an election year performance, the politics of the show were never heavy handed or preachy, simply an honest reflection of the artist’s views. Like many first time Bern listeners, I was awestruck at his ability to be an absolute goof just a few seconds before diving into an emotionally driven and poignant piece on religion, respect, or love. Sure, Bern is an acquired taste whose voice has been compared to a young Bob Dylan more than the old Bob Dylan these days. Nevertheless, Bern’s distinct voice and style refuse to change, and that tenacity is what appeals to longtime fans.

Breathe encapsulates with almost surgical precision Bern’s attitude and bearing but in doing so loses some of that gritty realism of his live shows. In writing this review, I was alternated between Breathe and a live show recording from this past July, during which Bern played many of the same songs. Breathe sounds flawless. When compared to Bern’s live set it’s clear that Plotkin and Bern spent long hours in the studio making it sound just right. But, it’s Bern’s imperfections that make him so captivating and open, and this album lacks some of the warm familiarity that drew me to Bern in the first place.

There are moments on Breathe that are above and beyond my admittedly high expectations. For example, the title track is a classic, complete with Bern’s impressive folk-twang storytelling and intriguing lyrics. The profoundly personal “Suicide Room” – a song about the strength and rewards of renting out an apartment previously vacated by two suicides – is so riddled with emotion that it could be a poem, and the music only intensifies the experience. There is one miss. Despite some of the best instrumental playing and lyrics on the album, “Remember Me” is a little rough on the ears. The thin range of Bern’s vocals make the song hard to revisit. However, tracks like “Trudy” and “Rain” testify to Bern’s abilities as songwriter, and his vocal range and lyrics only get better with age.

From his take on a modern messiah feeding 600 with a few snickers bars in to his depiction of Jesus’ death as a suicide mission in “Past Belief,” Bern’s message on Breathe is provocative, playful, and significant. I can think of few artists who can pull off this combination as well or as naturally as Bern. Breathe proves there’s a long road ahead for Dan Bern.

JamBase | San Francisco
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