The Story Behind Every Song On The Natvral’s Debut Album Tethers
Kip Berman has already proven himself a master of the genre exercise. On their 2009 debut album, Berman’s former band the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart served up pristinely fuzzed-out ’80s indie-pop. Then, with 2011’s Belong, they showed equal facility with dreamy arena-scaled ’90s alt-rock. TPOBPAH continued to mine ’80s and ’90s inspirations for the rest of their run, concluding with a full-length cover of Tom Petty’s 1989 smash hit Full Moon Fever. But Berman has embarked upon a full-scale stylistic makeover for his new solo project.
Tethers, Berman’s first album as the Natvral, finds him in a different stage of life, working within a different musical tradition. The former Brooklyn indie kid has long since settled down in Princeton, New Jersey with a wife and two children, a new environment that has inspired him to venture down new songwriting paths. Recorded before the pandemic, Tethers pointedly reflects on the transition into family life; the opening song — a soaring electric rocker that resembles “Like A Rolling Stone” filtered through “The Bends” — is titled “Why Don’t You Come Out Anymore?” Often Berman’s latest songs explore this phase between quarter-life and midlife through portraits of other people who he has watched grow up — or, in the case of “Sylvia, The Cup Of Youth,” refuse to grow up.
It turns out ragged, poetic folk-rock singer-songwriter status suits Berman quite well. You might even say he’s a natvral! Below, stream Tethers in full, and read his song-by-song description of the album.
I wrote most of these songs about three or four years ago, so it’s likely I don’t actually remember what they’re about. So take the below with a healthy grain of salt. Big thanks to Andy Savors who produced/mixed this record. He gave me a lot of confidence that the music I was writing, however different than what I did in Pains, was worthwhile. And thanks to my band, the Natvral Brohemians — Jacob Sloan (bass), Brian Alvarez (drums), Kyle Forester (keys), and Sarah Chihaya (vocals) — for bringing these tunes to life. Sure, this is a “solo record,” but it only turned out the way it did because of these friends taking time to work with me.
1. “Why Don’t You Come Out Anymore?”
I remember going down in the basement and just playing the opening part of this song, the part where I ask, “Why don’t you come out anymore?” over and over — and over. And after asking that question for a long while over the G, C and D chord, the muses must have heard, took pity on me (or just got sick of hearing the question) and offered up a host of answers — too many, really. Fidelity, housework, disappointment, kids, body dysmorphia, drugs, work, discreet sex, depression, regret, anxiety, fatigue, death — maybe some of those are more familiar to me than others — and all long before Covid offered an acceptable, catch-all “out” for all hanging out.
But Tethers is a record that’s about the way people — and I’m a people too — change over time, or don’t. So I can’t think of a better song to start things. You could skip the next eight songs, and you’d still “get it.”
2. “New Moon”
A little while back I said this song was about a struggling musician I knew coming to terms with a love that wants something (or someone) a bit more stable — and knowing, almost before they do, that it’s not him. But that could be me too, though I’m not nearly as noble, selfless, or resigned as the character in the song. Instead, I’ve carried out a successful (now) 10-year campaign of tricking my partner into thinking that I’m not a deadbeat loser. Little does she know…
3. “Sun Blisters”
If loving descending chords is a crime, I guess I’m going down.
This is a tune — like many on this album — that feels like it comes from some other place, or some part of me that I don’t know, or even know how to know. Some people write songs to share something about themselves. But maybe I write songs just to find out something about myself, as I’m too uptight to really access my feelings any other way. There’s this episode of the British TV show, Peep Show, where Mark says, “I’m the kind of person that would be closeted even to myself.” That feels relatable. Besides, my nice grandparents are still quite “with it” and have Google alerts, so let’s keep it clean.
So maybe “Sun Blisters” is about existing on the margins, with a disregard for consequences, social conventions, or… sunscreen. And then it’s about still having to face those consequences — not liking it — but staying unbowed and unbroken, but also… a bit bowed and broken. “In the end maybe I was wrong, laughing where only tears belong/ But love to you’s just a pretty song/ And I’m a sour note.” It’s sung, not to a past love directly, but to the person in their life that looks out for their well-being, trying to rationalize something that can’t be rationalized. “She’s doing better and I know it’s better, but I miss the way she was.”
4. “New Year’s Night”
That moment when you’re sharing a cab on New Year’s, and both of you are making it clear, “two stops.”
5. “Tears Of Gold”
I remember reading a book of Norse myths to my daughter a couple years back. It was the one about Freya and her ever wandering husband, always off in some other world. And though she found other entertainment and company in his absence, at night she cried at home with her young daughter, Noss.
It reminded me of when I was out on tour for the first time as the Natvral, and I called home from somewhere upstate, where I was about to play a show to literally just the sound person. And I didn’t know really where I was or what I was doing with my life — or why I wasn’t home. But I also knew a part of me had to be there — out there. It sounds like I’m about to say “, man.” I hear ya. This sort of “vague allusion to significance” thing doesn’t need to be indulged further. I’ll stop. But, man…
6. “Sylvia, The Cup Of Youth”
There was someone I used to know a while back who was always starting and re-starting her life. And mine, even then, was starting to solidify. That bit where I said, “You dressed like a Misfit, I liked it I guess” — that was meant (in part) literally, as in “a member of the rival band in Jem and the Holograms, the Misfits.” I think it was Pizzazz, the one with green hair and the zebra print shirt. And that line about “Last I heard you knew the words to every pop country song/ You became the radio, you’d been traveling that long,” I was thinking of how people absorb their environment, but what is absorbed from a life of constant movement, when you’re never anywhere that long?
But I was also thinking just a little bit right there of my old buddy Kelli Fannon, who literally knew the words to every pop country song on the radio. God, she had some dubious favorites — and, yeah, she LOVED Pains too. Oh well, I’m definitely going to get a “Well, you just haven’t really listened to Florida Georgia Line, have you, Kip?!?!?!?” text within an hour of this going up. Well, I have — and they’re no Emmylou Harris is all I’m gonna say about that.
7. “Stay In The Country”
Realized a bit too late this might be a Red Hot Chili Peppers song, but at least it’s Californication era — they were weirdly good then, right?
Many of you probably know about the bit in The Odyssey with Circe on Aeaea (a mythical island or an alternate guitar tuning?). She turns Odysseus’ men into pigs, she invites him to bed, he accepts, he hangs out for a while (a year!), and is mostly happy. Circe is too. She (an actual goddess) helps him many times, and even turns the pigs back into people.
But Odysseus has to leave (yeah, he’s actually married and his kids are in mortal danger). But what gets me is, Circe really didn’t do anything wrong. She would have been happy with Odysseus — Odysseus would have been happy with her. But he wouldn’t stay. I tried to tell some version of that story from her eyes.
But it’s not really about mythical goddesses and wandering (in both senses) heroes, is it? At its core, it’s about the desperation of knowing you can offer someone everything they want — it’s right there — and them knowing it and wanting it too — but it still can’t be. And while the reasons in Aeaea, or on Brokeback Mountain, or in Antony + Cleopatra’s Egypt may differ, there’s a tragic sense that for those for whom love is all, it’s still not enough to hold back the world.
8. “Runaway Jane”
A few years back, I met someone in Brisbane, Australia who was from Brazil and now lives in Vancouver, Canada. And here in Princeton, where I’ve lived for the last five years, there’s a lot of people from other parts of the world — and it makes me wonder what makes someone from somewhere else desire a life far from home, where everything is unfamiliar. And no, this isn’t some “economic opportunity, religious freedom, or avoid persecution” thing — that’s another kind of story. But it’s more about what makes a person need to live somewhere else — or feel incapable of being in any one place for too long.
9 “Alone In London”
This was the last song I wrote for the album. It was about that summer in Willesden (London) when I was recording Belong (2010) — actually in a studio just a couple blocks away from where I was making Tethers. Just stepping back into that world brought back all kinds of memories of a very different time in my life.
It’s a ballad of unrequited love, but maybe not quite how you think. When you write your own story, it’s easy to let yourself off the hook, or spin things in a way that’s flattering or sympathetic. Even if I might’ve done that, this time I wouldn’t.
Tethers is out now on Kanine. Buy it on vinyl here.