Eddie Berman has been writing songs since he was a California teenager. His bedroom demos have earned substantial play on vanguard public radio station KCRW 89.9 FM, he’s recorded and played throughout North America and Europe, and he performed for several thousand people over dozens of sold out London residency shows in partnership with the singer Laura Marling. In fact, while recording a live EP with Marling in 2013, he realized that the way to make a record was to strip the process down, to get at essence of the song. And now he’s finally releasing his debut album that does just that. It’s a stunning 10-song set that handles his world-wise observations as sacred, profound texts. The wait was worthwhile.
“It does feel like an eternity of building up and having this stuff, waiting,” Berman admits. “It’s a relief.”
That protracted process hasn’t made Berman—or his music, at least—impatient in the least. Instead, his perfectly tempered tenor winds through these austere arrangements, his assured fingerpicking providing the backbone for supporting piano and sighing lap steel, pillow-soft harmonies and blossoming trombone. Recorded by producer and former Rilo Kiley multi-instrumentalist Pierre De Reeder in his Los Angeles studio Kingsize North, Berman and his supporting cast cut these tunes in only two days. The tight timeframe didn’t give them time to overthink the arrangements or to fret over every point of possible imperfection. These tunes, then, feel lived-in and human—ever appropriate, as they are stark and honest examinations of the impulses, neuroses and desires that push each of us from one day and into the next.
“Some of my favorite records are recorded that way—people sitting in a room, capturing what they capture. There’s going to be a creaking chair. A solo isn’t going to be perfect. You’re not going to sing that line the way you’d planned it. But I love that,” says Berman. “Why would you overcomplicate these things?”
The obvious lure comes early in the record with a slow-motion take on “Like a Rolling Stone.” It’s Berman’s follow-up duet with Marling after they delivered a devastatingly seductive take of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” on his anticipation-baiting Blood & Rust EP. Berman’s voice trickles like a leaky faucet of worry, bending the anxiety and indignation of Dylan’s words into an existential, intimate crisis. But Marling lifts him up, buoying his worry with generous harmonies. It’s a stunning reinvention of a standard, the rare cover that acknowledges the original’s intent but unabashedly augments it. Berman and Marling had planned on recording an obscure cut, a Bonnie “Prince” Billy B-side. While working on it, though, the pair stumbled into this take while Berman was teaching himself to write in a new guitar tuning.
“I asked Laura to sing one of the verses, because if she doesn’t, it’s just six-and-half minutes of me singing Dylan,” Berman says. “That’s not so enchanting.”
The result is enchanting, but it’s also just the start, a premonition of the wisdom and reckoning that Berman wraps into his own songs. During “Hamlet, Accidentally,” for instance, Berman makes woe seem graceful, even necessary, as he extends his most magnetic chorus over stretched accordion chords and lilting picking. “Polyhymnia” is a yearning plea for inspiration, a secret transmission from a seeker in search not only of some universal truth but also for a way to share what he’s found. The brimming and bracing “Avalon” extols the uncertainty of that shared, lifelong quest.
All of those feelings funnel into closer “Wherever We Go,” a song about survival in spite of the elements and one another’s misdeeds. Berman’s band backs him with gospel-like antiphony, and the tune becomes a hymn for solidarity. “How you gonna sail/safely through the storm?” he asks, the ensemble repeating him before joining for the triumphant answer. “Hand in hand, we’ll keep each other warm.”
And that’s the promise and the delivery of Berman’s long-in-the-making debut. It’s an album that asks difficult questions about life, frames them with the smarts and experiences of someone who’s lived and learned and worked, and ultimately suggests a way forward.
“I am inextricably bound to this thing, to writing and playing these songs,” Berman explains. “You can’t get away from it, and that’s not necessarily easy. But that’s what fed these songs."