Breaking the longest musical silence of his decade-plus career, David Berman has reactivated his Silver Jews project for its fifth studio album, “Tanglewood Numbers.” Due Oct. 18 via Drag City, the 10-track set boasts the return of longtime collaborators/former Pavement members Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, who took a breather from the Jews’ 2001 album, “Bright Flight.”
“For the first time, I really am happy with the record in the sense that I will listen to it without it being a painful experience,” Berman tells Billboard.com from his Nashville hometown. “In my mind, this is a hard rock record. The last one was more of a vocal record. With my limited voice, my reaction to displaying it is that it’s necessary to put it right out front and not to hide it. But on this record, it’s a rock record, so I thought the voice would become more of an instrument.”
While “Tanglewood Blues” will hardly earn comparisons to Black Sabbath or Ozzy Osbourne (of whom Berman confesses a recent obsession, along with Johnny Paycheck), it does feature a handful of more propulsive tracks than usual, including opener “Punks in the Beerlight” and the frothy, lyrically beguiling “Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed.”
What it mostly offers up is another helping of literate, country-tinged rockers (“Animal Shapes,” “K-Hole”) and maudlin ballads (“The Farmer’s Hotel,” the first three minutes of “There Is a Place”). A major new contributor is Berman’s wife Cassie, who offers effective vocal counterpoint on a number of cuts and inspired the artist to fill “20 of those little yellow legal pads” with ideas.
Malkmus plays guitar on every song, while other contributions were turned in by Drag City labelmate Will Oldham, former A Perfect Circle/Papa M member Paz Lenchantin, former Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison and keyboardist Tony Crow.
But “Tanglewood Blues” nearly got the better of Berman, who wrestled control of the project from engineer Mark Nevers just as it was ready to be mixed, following a dispute over its musical direction. At one point, Berman says Nevers even threatened to throw the master tapes into the Cumberland River. Cooler heads eventually prevailed (Nevers and Berman remained friends), and the mix was completed by Joe Funderburk, a Nashville veteran of albums by the Judds and Glen Campbell.
“He’s just a really, really peculiar fellow,” Berman says of Funderburk. “His house has goat skulls on the walls. I was really frightened to go there and do things. I didn’t know Joe and I didn’t want to hang out in a haunted house all day. But it turned out great.”
In fact, Berman is so pleased with the finished product that the notoriously stage-shy artist seems more likely than ever to support it with live shows at some point in 2006. Estimating that he’s performed “about 12” times in his career, Berman acknowledges, “My attitude about performance is more mercenary now.
“Before, it was something I really felt couldn’t be successful and shouldn’t be done,” he continues. “I wasn’t in the business of peddling music and going out and selling myself. I want to go make a record and then return to my own life. But it has gotten the point where I can’t afford to just make money off records. I’m so far in debt from hospital bills over the last few years and just not working, that I can’t afford to be so protective of my art anymore. I refused to be an entertainer, but I guess I’m open to the idea of seeing if I can be an entertainer.”
But Berman points out that touring could also offer the added benefit of extra time spent with his wife. “I was thinking, why not have Cassie’s voice be the second voice instead of Malkmus’ voice? I can’t be sure that if I ever want to play live that Malkmus can even be there, but I know Cassie can,” he says. “If I want to play some shows in 2006, bringing my wife is like the best idea in the world.”
Also on the horizon for Berman: the follow-up to his 1999 novel “Actual Air” (“I need a six-month stretch where I say, ‘just this’ [before beginning work on it],” he offers) and a collection of early, previously unreleased Silver Jews material.
“I have hundreds of tapes of me, Bob and [Malkmus], but I’ve been real reluctant to go through them,” he admits. “Each one is 45 minutes long and we would just kind of let the thing run and make up songs for that night. It’s like the Library of Congress.”