Though he makes reference to some of the more memorably audacious claims from his previous recordings (declaring himself the returned messiah on his debut, for instance), Dan Bern finally reconciles his brazen wiseass side with his insightful, empathetic folksinger side on Breathe. Whereas albums like 1998’s Fifty Eggs, on which he boasted of having balls “big as the swing of Tiger Woods,” and 2001’s New American Language never found a workable balance between Bern’s two distinct MOs, Breathe finds Bern using his extraordinary observational eye and his wry humor within songs that give voice to fully-realized protagonists, each finding reasons to hope in a confusing, hostile world. This tentative optimism makes for both an interesting contrast to Bern’s previous offering, the inspired if ultimately ineffective My Country II: Music To Beat Bush By, and a focused collection of story-songs, the best of which, “Feel Like A Man” (“So I look in the mirror/And wait for the damn thing to speak/Who needs answers/One good question would be a relief”) and “Suicide Room” (on which a down-on-his-luck drifter decides to “beat” a room whose two previous tenants killed themselves) finally make good on all of those “next Bob Dylan” tags that Bern has picked up in the last decade. If Breathe isn’t as start-to-finish exceptional as Dylan’s own Modern Times, it’s still as smart and catchy as most any other folk-rock album, and it’s absolutely Bern’s most accomplished, vital album.
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