Back after a much-too-long four-year absence -- during which David Berman struggled with substance abuse, depression, and a suicide attempt -- the Silver Jews return with Tanglewood Numbers, an album full of the wry, insightful storytelling for which the band is beloved, as well as some striking differences. The album's polished sound will come as something of a surprise to fans who have been around since the Starlite Walker days, as will Berman's urgent vocals on tracks like "Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed." However, these changes work in the album's favor and give an anthemic heft to the most gripping moments, most of which are about confronting troubles and fears head-on: On the album's opening track, "Punks in the Beerlight"'s "burnouts in love" fight to stay that way even when it gets really, really bad; "There Is a Place" closes Tanglewood Numbers by moving from despair to hope with a thrilling, white-knuckle chant of "I saw God's shadow on this world." But, even on the album's most desperate, searching songs, Berman's unfailing eye for detail remains, and Tanglewood Numbers is populated with young black Santa Clauses, girls in special economic zones, and guys who work in airport bars. Funny couplets like "Sleeping Is the Only Love"'s "I heard they were taming the shrew/I heard the shrew was you" and lighter, more typically rollicking Silver Jews tracks such as "Animal Shapes" and "How Can I Love You if You Won't Lie Down" keep Tanglewood Numbers from sounding too much like a recovery journal (not to mention that Berman is too talented a writer to need to rely on strictly autobiographical subject matter). Nevertheless, the dark undercurrent that runs through the album makes sweet moments like these all the sweeter. Hopefully the circumstances around Tanglewood Numbers will never repeat themselves, but there's no denying that this is a uniquely powerful and moving set of songs.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares