I truly despise music writers that lead off any discussion of an artist’s latest work as “something his longtime fans will absolutely love.” But, to be fair, it applies to Dan Bern’s latest collection of songs titled Regent Street. Those of us who have taken this journey with the singer-songwriter, author, and painter for these many years immediately recognize the voice; part smarm and part charm with a dab of defiance and a shaker of wisdom. You might hear sixties pop or nineties rock or sounds from foreign lands, because the music always tells a deeper tale for Bern. We know. We’ve been with him there before.
For me it would begin in the early aughts when I first saw Bern perform in NYC and was moved to contact his management. He called me one day from his van rumbling through Pennsylvania on his way to another gig. And predictably this is how our latest discussion was conducted; rolling down I80 through Iowa, his place of origin, and me back in Jersey trying to piecemeal quotes from the crackling connection. You see, Dan and I have done some travelin’ and talkin’, sometimes even in the same place, which eventually succumbed to the cliché music journalist falls for musician and vice versa and through it all I have heard a ton of music from him that moves in and out of several genres, from anti-folk to country to punkish rockabilly with lyrics that cover social issues, celebrity passes, love songs, and personal revelations. And this record takes me back to all that, way back, to the core of how Dan Bern songs affect me.
Having stated all of that as a conciliatory measure for my opening axiom, the record was originally to be called The Reveal, or at least that’s how I received it in early January. For, indeed, Regent Street does starkly reveal a great deal about what makes Dan, well, Dan; like, for instance a reprise on his old pal Tiger Woods in his talking blues ramble, “Dear Tiger Woods”.
Maybe it’s time to play a little less golf
It’s not like I think you should be president
I mean, now who really wants to be president
I was thinking more along the lines of emperor
Let’s say temporary king of the world
Evoking Woods once stood as a sound reason to express the import of having “big balls” transmogrified into big ideas – Tiger as fallen angel cum messiah, another subject DB knows well… oh, how he knows.
But the album really hits the open road with some of Bern’s finest political commentary—and this is saying something when considering a canon that provides among many, “New Revolutionaries,” “Cure for AIDS,” “My County II,” “After the Parade,” “President,” and my personal favorite, “We Shall Not Be Divided”
“America Without People” might be the most hauntingly arresting piece of protest in his proud history of fist-curling vitriol against apathetic injustices.
I will seek no new alliance
Unless it brings me gold
I will shift and hide and camouflage
Find new friends, spurn the old
Find answers in the shadows
And the oceans plunder deep oh—
I will give you America without the people
This is the sort of song you pen with your back against the wall and things tend to come apart, as they have lately around here, no matter where you look. “It’s a dark song and I think it deserves that kind of dark treatment,” says Bern. “Well, to get to the core of it; which is every single thing the current regime is currently for and pushing for feeds into a kind of corporate machine and not for the people.” In the same breath Bern tells me that this continued attempt to call truth to power and what he once wrote of me, to possess a viable bullshit meter, is less dire and more indicative of the energy and hopefulness of what he feels is the very definition of his job—“Trying to describe these things, trying to put your finger on them.”
And this is where you also find a song like “Take the Guns Away.” I mean, it is a bit on the nose, isn’t it? It’s as if he’s tired of couching his outrage in cute asides and acerbic witticisms long enough and decided to just come out and say it, or in this case, sing it with a fervor left to those with a permanent residence at the corner of the sick & tired.
I don’t care about the motive
I don’t need to understand the mind of a killer
There’s sixteen thousand motives
25 million deranged minds
I don’t need to retrace his steps
Or where he got his weapons at
I don’t need to read his
Tenth grade journal
Take the guns away
Bern ruminates as the highway rolls beneath him: “Of course, when you write a song like that, your first question of why you do it is, ‘Is it going to change anything?’ And if not, why make this statement? Then you ask, ‘Then what am I doing all of this all for in the first place?’ Well, to speak out! If all you’re going to do is make pretty songs with impressionistic lyrics that can be taken any number of ways, then maybe it’s time to retire because you’re not useful anymore. At the end of the day, I have to look myself in the mirror.”
Musically, “Take the Guns Away” belies this desperate cry for help. It fits neatly in the yin/yang of Regent Street as it again reveals the pop sensibility of Bern’s best work dating back to some of his most memorable songs, “I’m Not the Guy,” “Marilyn,” and “Baby Bye Bye,” to name just three. Same goes for “Deregulation,” which would also merely be something of a siren song to the death of the planet if it wasn’t awash in a stunningly emotive Brian Wilson brain-screw. Sonically brilliant, it helps take the edge off all the terror. “I think of that song and all the songs as part of the same big sphere to me,” Bern says. “If an album was made up of all pop songs, I’d feel I’d left something important out, and if it was just the heavy, dark, more political things, musically and spiritually, it wouldn’t feel right either. It’s the balance and the totality of it, and when you make a record like this, the songs talk to each other, inform each other, and you start writing based on what’s missing. In fact, I wrote ‘Not Perfect’ and ‘America Without the People’ within days of each other, and I am sure I wouldn’t have either one if not for the other.”
When I broached the album’s embrace of pop rock, Bern agrees. “Oh, yeah, I think you’re right,” he says. “I returned to it for this album and I think it’s because of all the Beatles I’ve listened to with Lulu, especially the early stuff.” Lulu is Dan’s ten-year-old daughter, whose voice can be heard in many of his Instagram video plugs for gigs or promotional material, and also pops up on the odd song. “That’s where it all started for me anyway, back before I could even play guitar, or heard Dylan or Guthrie that let me know I could actually do this, make songs, sings songs as one guy. I was just this kid in a room singing along with the Beatles. And yeah, it’s been great to indulge that part of myself more on this record.”
And this indulgence is done so well it’s a bit scary—short and sweet ditties filled with dulcet goodies drenched in sublime harmonies and pithy middle-eights to beat any band, even the Fab Four. I especially love the homage that opens the aforementioned “Not Perfect,” with its prologue from the first Beatles opener, “One, Two, Three, FUCK!” I prefer to think Beatle Paul would have been cheeky enough to put the right kind of expletive at the beginning of things. This and “songwriter’s songwriter” songs like “Cheri” reminds you why you loved DB in the first place, but nothing says John Lennon in his painted Rolls Royce-“Safe as Milk” days than “Ridin on a Train”, which has a deliciously trippy harmony and modal piano lines to give my nostalgia bones a rain ache.
My head is in a fog
But hey I’m not sure if I’m stoned
How would I know
Like out in space
How would they know?
If I was out in space
Just floating free
Without a phone
I hope at least
They’d let me be
Let me be stoned
Probably my favorite song on the record, ironically enough, is “One Song,” mainly because I can’t figure the thing out: Is this guy on death row and he has one more song to sing before he dies and can’t figure among the thousands he’s sung what to sing? Because this is how many Dan Bern has written and sung since I’ve known him and long before that, bub. Of course, I don’t care about any of that because the melody is beyond gorgeous. It is both sad and defiant, a difficult balance, and it makes me want to figure things out because this is one helluva stanza:
Is this punk
Is this rock ‘n’ roll
Well maybe I’m Louis Armstrong singin’
That old jelly roll
Or maybe I’m Old Glory
Flyin’ at half mast
Or maybe I’m a message
From your forgotten past
Or maybe I’m the circus
Rollin into town
Grab your ticket, find a seat
The curtain’s comin’ down
Someone says 10 seconds
I’m all alone
And while the album closes with this gem, its opener is a new voice for Bern; swampy boogie-woogie magic of the underground French Quarter that slithers like a voodoo mist. It is the slap-back chatter of a master offering up another prose poem musical dish of horn blasts in a rollick bloated with atmosphere and just plain fear. The right kind of eerie warning that makes us all want to go, nay dance on down to the mythical Regent Street. “It’s basically a cover of my own song,” says Bern with a chuckle. “Roger Daltrey’s been a fan of my music for a few years now and he reached out to me a while ago asking for any new stuff I’d been working on for a solo project of his and I sent him ‘Regent Street’ and I never heard anything back. Few months later I get this incredible version of the song and I loved it so much I basically took his band’s vibe and ran with it.”
Another departure that may seem minor to some and to others barely recognizable is that this is the first Dan Bern album in which half of the songs were written on piano, an instrument he had begun to play around with slowly and build upon after a run-in with a snow blower took off parts of this chording hand in the winter of 2018. In fact, Dan playing piano is depicted on the front and back covers, just in case this got past you. “Yeah, you know, songs come out differently when you write on piano,” Bern says. “We all get into our patterns and grooves on specific instruments and it was nice to have a different place to start the process.” This time he was forced to change those patterns and rethink the process as his year-long rehabilitation shed light on new sounds. But it’s still, well, Dan.
So, I guess what I’m saying here is that longtime Dan Bern fans will recognize this guy. Yeah, he’s the one we love and have loved since his ode to the death of the millennium lying around the Hotel Chelsea waiting on the messiah. Speaking of which, when the hell are they going to reopen the damn place, the next millennium? And if what Dan told me when he sent me these songs is true, and his old pal, and one of my favorite people, Jordan Katz (of the horns and banjo Katzs’s), who worked as the album’s associate producer and producer Jonathan Flaugher, who also played bass on the record, quickly got this whole thing together to better patch these songs into our consciousness, then I say bravo. Because Regent Street is another in a long line of fine rambles around the head of the man who has already met God and the Devil and taken on the villains and crooned the maidens and made all of it make sense.