As Berman himself once put it, though, “all my favorite singers couldn't sing.” If this is the kind of sentiment you could see yourself agreeing with, and you think lyrics can carry the weight of an album, then The Natural Bridge is for you. It is, in many ways, the purest Silver Jews album. Due to the collaborators, guests, and involvement of some members of Pavement, all of the other Jews albums lack the pure Berman as heard on this record. The music is at its most basic, a jangly, country tinged indie rock, almost always mid-tempo and mellow. I would go so far as to say that The Natural Bridge is the weakest Jews album from a pure musical standpoint, because it is their one release that skirts closest to the danger that all singer-songwriter style albums face: coming off as poems set to music rather than music that has especially good lyrics. Other Jews albums have engaging, dynamic music, sometimes even with genuine melodies and hooks, as on the masterful American Water. The Natural Bridge, on the other hand, feels at times like a collaboration between a poet and an alt.country band. 'Ballad Of Reverend War Character' has fitting accompaniment and I love the lyrics, but musically it sounds like what happens when music is written or improvised in reaction to lyrics rather than music written or improvised alongside the crafting of the lyrics in a symbiotic give-and-take between the two. For further proof of this, see the instrumental, 'The Right To Remain Silent', which is, in terms of its music, this record's most expressive and interesting song. Understand that I'm not saying the music and playing on this album are bad or boring, they just aren't impressive or memorable.
Still, if you're a fan of the Silver Jews, The Natural Bridge is one of the band's most essential releases. This is simply a result of the focus being placed so squarely on Berman's lyrics; they're allowed to carry the weight of the record on their own, and they do so ably. I'm quite serious that Berman could have released this as a spoken word album and it would have been just as great. Since his gruff, raspy baritone is an acquired taste, these songs might even have been better without trying to be music or Berman trying to sing. Every song on this album has a handful of lines that I've posted to my Facebook or quoted to friends. “Guard my bed while the rain turns the ditches to mirrors”, starts 'Pet Politics', “buy a vase of carnations from central Ohio, where the looking machine can't hear us.” The masterful 'Albemarle Station' offers up “there must be a Spanish word for this feeling/the rush I get when I am stealing.” Album closer 'Pretty Eyes' must top the list of “least impressive music paired with most impressive lyrics” in the Jews discography. Every line here is a winner, from “when the governor's heart fails, the state bird falls from its branch” to “all houses dream in blueprints” to “and though final words are hard to devise/I promise I'll always remember your pretty eyes.”
Even if Berman hadn't published a poetry collection in 1999; even if he hadn't disbanded the Silver Jews in 2009 to focus on his other interests; even if he hadn't published a collection of cartoons/drawings, also in 2009, I would still consider him a poet first and musician second. If you're the kind of listener who absolutely must have some sweet melodies and engaging songwriting in your music, then any other Jews album is a better choice. If you're like me, though, and you get off on great writing no matter what form it's delivered in, The Natural Bridge may become your next obsession.
4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5