It is tempting to wait it out in times of turmoil and hope for the best. There are days when just trying to make rent seems like a good enough excuse to not open the newspaper and read the latest body count of today's mass shooting or to hear what new spin the two major political parties of the country have found to denigrate each other.
In the sphere of art, the equivalent behavior would be for artists to just do what they always have done. Do you like to paint landscapes? Great, enjoy painting landscapes and pay no mind to the political battleground that threatens the very vistas you want to capture on canvas.
But for some, to continue with what you have always done is not an option due to some personal conflict set against turning in the same homework, getting a passing grade and sitting back down.
David Berkeley is conflicted in just that way. While his new material would have likely been a worthwhile listen regardless of its lyrical content, there is something especially charged about his recently released EP, The Faded Red and Blue. If it had been a collection of five love songs—and it is, in a way—there would be no compelling argument that Berkeley is guilty of any moral error. But according to Berkeley, he just would not have felt right about going ahead with a business-as-usual attitude given the current state of affairs in the United States.
"I'm a cult songwriter. I don't have a huge following, and I mostly write love songs," Berkeley tells SFR. "But in these past years it's felt irresponsible to do that exactly, but I don't want to abandon the project of bringing beauty into the world. That's the line I was trying to find and draw—how can you address this stuff and still make something that's beautiful?"
Berkeley solves the problem with deft songwriting in line with a long career of blending narrative with song. While the material is heavy, addressing not just political discourse but also topics such as gun violence on "Throw Down a Line," it still occupies space with beauty and grace. Melodically, there is plenty of light to shine through, though he's no stranger to minor-key moping, and Berkeley often communicates his pain and anger with surprisingly upbeat presentation. And if the goal is to bring beauty into the world, The Faded Red and Blue reaches it.
The secret seems to come from Berkeley's approach in trying to address America's citizenry as a whole. While he described his political beliefs as left-leaning, he attempts to sidestep the act of pointing fingers by instead writing about what he loves about this country and how it might improve. The final track, "This Be Dear to Me," is what Berkeley describes as a love song. It lists beautiful elements of American life that transcend the violent, ugly quarreling to which many of us have grown accustomed.
"We're going to maybe work our way out of this mess by focusing on the positives instead of all the shit we're upset about," Berkeley explains. "I want to start remembering the things I love and care about. That song to me is like a prayer. Writing it felt that way too, it felt kind of like praying. I haven't had that experience as a songwriter exactly like that before."
It's a clever trick, a sort of benevolently populist approach to complex problems that seems to urge listeners toward greater unity rather than division. There is a reason the collection is named The Faded Red and Blue—and it's not commentary on the flag, but rather the partisanship of a country that seems so bent toward disaster.
"Even the people I agree with politically can look pretty ugly sometimes when arguing our side," he tells SFR. "It's important for us to remember that and be compassionate and generous, not just ask them to be more considerate."
The complexity of the songs overall outclasses any phrasing as simplistic as "us versus them," and while the EP may not give any definitive answers for where we go from here, it's inspiring to hear someone in the thick of trying to figure it out rather than ignoring it.
David Berkeley: The Faded Red and Blue EP Release Show
7 pm Friday Nov. 16. $10. Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery, 2791 Agua Fría St.