Dan Bern seems to be on a never-ending world tour that began sometime in the mid-90s. Now he's taken that globe-trotting experience and channeled it into his terrific new album, Drifter.
Drifter plays as an introspective travelogue - Los Angeles, Spain, the Netherlands, and outer space are all traversed in rhyme. On recent albums Bern veered into pure rock territory with the occasional blazing electric guitar and sneering vocal, but Drifter sticks to the kinds of upbeat folk he made early in his career, and the addition of Common Rotation's skills on a myriad instruments fills out the sound perfectly.
In fact, it's almost as if Bern is telling us that after all this travel, it's time to reset and start over. Longtime fans will notice similarities between Drifter's leadoff track, "Luke the Drifter," and "Jerusalem," the first song on his self-titled 1997 debut album. Back then, Bern jokingly sung "I am the Messiah;" this time he assures us "I am God's only son / No mistakin' this time around." Another callback to his early career is "Party By Myself," a song that originally appeared on the 1996 compilation In Harmony With the Homeless. The project matched songwriters with graduates of the Los Angeles Mission's homeless rehabilitation program, who would add the lyrics. Bern was paired with Fred Washington, whose somber tale of life far below the poverty line is perhaps more resonant now than when it was originally written 16 years ago. Bern is a considerably more confident singer here than on the original recording, and it's wonderful to hear the song revisited.
Slightly more opulent surroundings make up the bulk of Drifter though. "Rainin' In Madrid" finds Bern wondering if the economic collapse will cause our country to be more like Spain or Argentina, where people "know how to laugh and take their showers in the rain." "Capetown" does for South Africa what 2003's "I Need You" did for Key West, providing a perfect image of the landscape and capturing the feeling of the place. Bern proves he's the rare folk singer that can make a line like "I Googled people I hadn't seen in twenty years" sound effective. "Haarlem" is the kind of stream-of-consciousness riff that Bern excels at. Eric Kufs' dobro ambles along as Bern sings "Walking the streets of Haarlem / Not that one, the other one / the one with two A's / the Dutch one." But the best travel song on the album is "Mexican Vacation," a six-minute banjo-fueled romp through a future dystopian America that sounds like a sci-fi version of Dylan's "Brownsville Girl." Singing about a train trip taken just before humans were forced to live underground, Bern travels "where the Atlantic meets the Indiana mud" and meets a "runaway slavery girl." But times get tough, and Bern sings (spoiler alert), "sometimes you gotta look out for yourself, yeah / one cold night in Philadelphia / I turned in my runaway slavery girl." It's the kind of hilarious-yet-catchy song Bern's fans have come to love, and illustrates why he was chosen to contribute his brand of musical humor to films like Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story and Get Him To the Greek.
Bern's serious side shines through as well on "Swing Set," a stunning ballad featuring Emmylou Harris written as an ode to Bern's mother. Bern and Harris' back-and-forth vocals are breathtaking, and the song rivals Patty Griffin's "Burgundy Shoes" in its ability to make you wonder how long it's been since you called Mom. "Home" is co-written by Marshall Crenshaw and Mike Viola (best known as Johnathon Schaech's singing voice in That Thing You Do), and provides a pleasant flipside to the travel songs, with Bern finally returning home but noting it was "worth the wait."
As good as Bern's records are, a common refrain is how much better he is live. His hilarious between-song banter rivals Todd Snider's in its beatnik creativity, and he's not shy about playing songs he wrote just hours before the show. Many of the songs on Drifter have been thoroughly road-tested, which helps to make it the first Dan Bern record that brings that live experience into your headphones. This is an album that will please his current fans, and hopefully garner him many new ones.