Silver Jews were always destined for a spot outside the limelight, and that probably suits David Berman just fine. The band's core (or more honestly, only real) member, Berman first stumbled into minor renown because his early bandmates happened to start Pavement. (The title Slanted And Enchanted came from a cartoon Berman drew.) Berman was irked that his group got tagged as a side project, but part of his appeal—both musically and personally—was that, at least on the surface, he couldn't be bothered. But anything more than a cursory listen to the Silver Jews' full-length debut, 1994's Starlite Walker, reveals something bigger than the deceptively laconic delivery implies: Berman is an extraordinary—and often extraordinarily strange—lyricist whose turns of phrase easily rival Stephen Malkmus', even as they tread the same arch territory.
For 15 years, though, Berman has shied away from the machinations of rock, though not its excesses. He released a steady stream of excellent records between 1994 and 2001, but chose not to play concerts, claiming that he just wanted to make art, not go out and hawk it. (A book of his poems, Actual Air, met with substantial acclaim, and Berman actually ventured out of the house to read from it.) And then… drugs and despair, apparently. Berman bottomed out before bouncing back to get married and record Tanglewood Numbers, an album whose zippy Nashville-meets-indie sound is juxtaposed with dour, clever, funny, strange, and inventive lyrics, all delivered in a voice so deadpan that it's hard to believe it's so affecting.
The love-and-death anthem "Punks In The Beerlight" immediately introduces Berman's wife Cassie to the album—she shows up a lot, lending the whole thing a twisted June-and-Johnny vibe. The song, about "two burnouts in love," funnels the sort of brutal, weird cheer that Silver Jews have perfected: Even through details about fenatnyl patches and puke, there's still some skewed love. Elsewhere, Berman tries to play it a little straighter: "I'm Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You" sounds for all the world like Lambchop, and "How Can I Love You If You Won't Lie Down" finds inspiration in girl groups and easy jokes.
Tanglewood Numbers isn't the front-to-back triumph it might've been—"The Farmer's Hotel," co-written with Malkmus, tries too hard to hit clever—but it's a welcome return nonetheless for a straight face that looks unlike any other.