Berman’s prescient thoughtful folk album was written back in 2019 but sounds like it was inspired by the height of the pandemic.
Portland-based folk singer-songwriter Eddie Berman found himself with an album’s work of material in 2020 that, like many artists, he was suddenly forced to figure out how to record remotely. The fact that he’d already written so openly and thoughtfully about alienation and isolation bordered on premonitory.
Berman grew up in Los Angeles, the son of television and film producer Rick Berman, but relocated to Portland, Oregon with his wife and children. He recorded ‘Broken English’ remotely at home in a studio set up in the nursery, while his bandmates multi-instrumentalist Gabe Feenberg and drummer Max MacVeety worked on their own elsewhere. They were unable to work at Berman’s collaborator Pierre De Reeder’s studio in Los Angeles, but De Reeder engineered and mixed the album remotely.
Many of the songs on ‘Broken English’ sound like old classics, most notably ‘Water in the Barrel,’ ‘The Wheel,’ the country-flavored title track, and ‘Cherokee Rose’ (partly inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s novel ‘Blood Meridian’). This feeling might stem from the fact that Berman wrote the songs on the banjo, then recorded them on acoustic guitar. ‘The Wheel’ perfectly captures the induced anxiety caused by life online. Berman says, “The digital hallucinatory experience of everyday life is so filled with distractions that make you anxious, and anxieties that push you to distraction. It’s hard to remember that I’m an actual living person sometimes.”
‘Water in the Barrel’ was inspired by the fascinating English philosopher, speaker, and early proponent of Eastern spirituality, Alan Watts. Berman listened to Watts lectures while riding his bike and was struck by a description of ancient Japanese warriors. (Riding a bike in the windswept, beautiful Pacific Northwest while listening to an Alan Watts lecture might be one of the most Portland things it is possible to do.)
He told ‘The Strange Brew’: “The title of the song came from an Alan Watts lecture…He was talking about the concept of ‘mushin,’ the sort of zen state-of-mind that’s totally still (like water in a barrel) but ready to react immediately when necessary (like when the plug is pulled). But the phrase also made me think of the especially precarious state of the world at the moment and how it feels like so many different things are reaching a boiling point.”
Musically Berman’s low-key vocal style sounds a bit like Gordon Lightfoot’s, a soft grit with underlying humility and sweetness, and conjures the gentle sadness of Nick Drake at other times. His warm sound has also been compared to the folkier moments of The Grateful Dead. He mourns separation in relationships and the general fragmentation of society, with the songs flowing into one another in a very Zen-like way, making it easy to lose all sense of time for the album’s duration. It really does feel like being among friends sitting around a campfire.
If this intimate, no-frills album contains a message or theme, it would be a simple but profound one: simplicity. Deliberately seeking out moments of mindfulness and connection with people we care about, cherishing nature, and being actively present in our own lives. And, not least, binge-listening to Alan Watts lectures.