Four years after Bright Flight, David Berman returns to his post as the poet laureate of indie rock. While Berman comes off as introspective as ever in Tanglewood Numbers, his musings find a more personal focus following a bout of depression and a suicide attempt. Back again is Berman's wife Cassie, lending vocals and lyrics; Stephen Malkmus, setting time away from the Jicks, provides some jangly guitars. In little over 30 minutes, this musical narrative encompasses adversity, love and redemption with wry lyricism and a bit of country flair.
With the anthem-ish "Punks in the Beerlight," the album immediately stumbles upon Berman about to throw up from drinking too much. His wife's consolation -- "If it ever gets really really bad..." is quickly interrupted: "Let's not kid ourselves, it gets really really bad," he puts bluntly. Spousal dismissals aside, their relationship finds itself as the inspirational center of Berman's songwriting. In "Sleeping Is the Only Love" he passionately croons: "I heard they were taming the shrew / I heard the shrew was you." Romance gives way to the emotionally complex in "The Farmer's Hotel," stirring up bucolic images of past hardships: "There's no natural law that can explain what I saw / Spread out on that straw-covered floor." Though never explicitly referring to specific problems, each song resonates with the raw intensity of a recovering addict. Even tracks such as the more upbeat "Animal Shapes" and "Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed" retain a darker perspective beneath whimsical subjects. Nevertheless, Berman saves his most eloquent meditations for the very end. "There Is a Place" concludes Tanglewood Numbers in a nebulous swirl of guitars and lyrical ambiguity. "I saw God's shadow on this world," Berman repeatedly declares -- yet it's hard to be sure whether he's encountered hope or more suffering. Let's assume for now that it is the former, and that the Silver Jews can continue their storytelling ways.