Mimicky boys on a guru bender were easy marks for David Berman’s previous four albums and three EPs, to the point that a “silver jew,” for some, was a look or state to which one could aspire, with the right amount of dishevelment and para-brilliant repartee. Though earnest segments of his past work go down a little soggy now that the ’90s are being denied a legacy, Berman was plumbing the southern reliquary of dumb/smart, gorgeous/grotesque, privilege/impoverished, college-grad/working-class tensions almost a decade before David Gordon Green’s films came along.
Tanglewood Numbers is the first Jews record intent on keeping the listeners’ knees too busy for the contemplative cowardice of a rocking chair (though standing upright is anathema to Berman, as evidenced by the come-on “How Can I Love You If You Won’t Lie Down”). Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nostanovich further their tradition of being session men on every other album, but the presence of Berman’s wife Cassie keeps the proceedings from seeming overly hijacked by nostalgia for Pavement.
The lyrics contain top-notch turns such as “Happiness won’t leave me alone,” or this line, on which Berman compounds two cliches, as if trying to outsloshbuckle Jon Bon Jovi: “Nothing’s going to get in the way/Of whatever it takes.” These songs are odes, so they refrain from telling whole stories, or even providing coherent imagery; rather, they evoke, with profane sentimentality, a card game being played with made-up rules at some stoner/prep/hipster/cowboy crossroads.
Initially slight but corrosively substantial, Tanglewood Numbers is a buoyant and risky album about drugs, depression, and undying love.