I still remember the first time I heard Dan Bern. It was back in 2002 at one of the computer labs at Purdue. I was no longer a student, but I would go and log in with my friend Jeremy’s info and download ridiculous amounts of music. I discovered a lot of things there: Bright Eyes, Har Mar Superstar, MC Paul Barman, and too many more to recount here. I never found any full albums by Bern, just random live versions of his songs recorded by fans. At the time the one that stuck out most was called “Song To Woody By Bob From Dan To Bruce.”
It was a hilarious tune where he took the stories of Bob Dylan visiting a dying Woody Guthrie in the hospital and making up a fictional account of Bern sneaking into Bruce Springsteen’s home to have the same kind of visitation. Of course Springsteen isn’t on his death bed in the song and he kicks him out. That was my first impression of Bern, and I loved it.
From that time time to now Dan Bern has remained a relative unknown to most people. He got a bit of a bump a few years ago when he contributed to the songs written for the movie Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (most notably “There’s a-Change a-Happenin’I Can Feel It”). He also penned a couple Aldous Snow songs for Get Him To The Greek.
After spending a few albums plugging in and rocking a bit more, Bern returns to his roots on Drifter, his first original full-length in three years. Needless to say he’s grown as a writer and performer in the decade since I first became aware of him.
In his earlier days Bern’s voice was a nasally whine. He played up all of his similarities to Dylan to great benefit. Sometime along the way he found his own way of singing and got a boost of confidence. His words are more pointed now instead of the sometimes meandering warble of his early records.
The song that popped for me the most in my initial spin of Drifter is “Carried Away.” It starts out like a Sticky Fingers-era Stones song, but only for the opening bars. After that it reminds me much more of Wilco somewhere between A.M. and Being There. It’s one of the few songs that features electric guitar heavily, but it’s absolutely integral here. This might be the most mainstream tune I’ve ever heard by Bern, but he doesn’t sacrifice writing quality to broaden the appeal.
As much as I love that song, I think that the duet with Emmylou Harris, “Swing Set,” is a bit of a missed opportunity. It’s a snoozy, contemplative ballad that thinks over a parent and child’s memories drifting away as the kid gets older and the relationship that was so close has become less important. Maybe it holds a deep meaning for Bern, but I didn’t really connect with it as written. Good vocal performances from Harris and Bern, but overall not a great song. A rare miss for Bern.
Luckily he redeems himself a couple songs later with “Mexican Vacation.” It’s a not quite post-apocalyptic tale of a dystopian future where the world is mostly underwater due to climate change. In the words, Bern creates a cinematic vision to behold. Cars underwater, acid rain in the hills of Pennsylvania, and mole people all make appearances. It’s his usual sly wit and picturesque storytelling that make a lot of his songs work, and this one is a great example of that.
I’m a fan of Drifter, but I think being a fan going in helps. If you listened to Dan Bern at the beginning of his career and didn’t follow him, I’d suggest giving him another shot. He’s matured greatly over the past decade, both in his writing and in his performance. The nasally young man just trying to get his voice heard is gone and in his place is a true wordsmith and troubadour.
Drifter was released on June 12th, and you can listen to the whole thing for free before purchasing on Bandcamp. His current tour dates are strictly east coast (he was just here in Chicago last month, I believe), but he’s basically been on tour for the past fifteen years so he’ll be making it to your neck of the woods sometime in the not too distant future, I’m sure.