Posts Tagged ‘The Silver Jews’

From Silver Jews to his most recent project, Purple Mountains, David Berman wrote songs that plumbed dark emotions with an unexpected, wry humor.

Nearly a year’s passed since the world lost David Berman, and it’s tempting to think about what he would’ve made of the time since he’s been gone. Coming up in the same college rock scene as Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastonvich, Berman would often find himself unfairly lumped together with his contemporaries in Pavement. In reality, though, he was a singular voice. Witty, melancholy, profound, low-brow, poetic—in his writing and music, he found a way to channel all these forces into little gems that gleamed for whoever took the time to look. His passing saw a flood of tributes that crossed generational lines, with everyone from Bill Callahan and Kurt Vile to First Aid Kit and Stef Chura showing the mark Berman and his music left on their lives.

For most of his career, Berman released music under Silver Jews, a project started in 1989 with his college friends Malkmus and Nastanovich. The lineup would change dramatically across the band’s six studio albums, but with Berman’s writing and wry delivery always resting at its core. His presence for fans was defined almost as much by his absence. Silver Jews never embarked on a single tour until 2005 with the release of Tanglewood Numbers. And shortly after that, in 2009, Berman announced that he was retiring from music, with Silver Jews’ final show inside a cave at the Cumberland Caverns. Almost a decade of silence followed until out of the blue Berman announced he had a record coming in 2019 under the new band name of “Purple Mountains.” Recorded with members of Woods, the self-titled album quickly found both praise and concern as a brutally sad, but clever, lovingly produced and fitting return for one of the sharpest lyricists in music. While this would tragically mark the end of Berman’s musical legacy, what he left behind was a trove of beautifully heavy music.
Here are his best songs.

‘Suffering Jukebox’

Berman stated That’s one of my favourites, but I don’t think we did a good job of putting it across. I want to figure out a good way of doing it with this live band, and make a real version of it. Before Nashville became what it has become in the last seven years – it’s become intolerable – from like ’98 to 2008, let’s say, it was paradise for me. I loved it. One of the great things was being able to, starting at 10 in the morning if you cared to do so, go sit in a bar and listen to an amazing live band play covers of the greatest country songs ever made, down on Lower Broad.

Now, of course, you can’t do that. There are a hundred bars like that, and they’re crammed with frat boys and sorority girls and bachelorette parties. They have hot tubs on wheels now that they drive around. But going down and sitting at those places when they were empty, at sunset or in the middle of the day, and watching those guys play, [I came] up with that metaphor for a person like that.

A brisk tempo and barrelhouse piano gird this brief, almost giddy story — from the final Silver Jews album, “Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea” — about a young man’s ardor for a voracious gal who incites him into crimes. It’s a noir miniature, and Berman somehow gracefully rhymes “lard” and “fired.”

The chorus is a goof (“You never know when your pet will go”), but the rest of this staggering-about rock song from “The Natural Bridge” is a plea for protection from nature and man: “Please guard my bed,” Berman sings several times, as the song dies out.

“We Are Real”

About halfway through American Water Berman gave one of his most lyrically pointed tracks with “We Are Real.” “Won’t soul music change now that our souls have turned strange?” he asks, searching for something that’ll affirm his reality instead of masking it. The music hits a perfectly simple balance of tension and release to mirror Berman’s muted indignation in some parts (“We’ve been raised on replicas / of fake and winding roads / and day after day, up on this beautiful stage / We’ve been playing tambourine for minimum wage”) and defiant hope in others (“When on and off collide / We’ll set our souls aside and walk away”).

“The Sabellion Rebellion”

This track from the split 7’’ between New Radiant Storm King and the cheekily titled Silver Jews & Nico is a hidden gem within the Jews’ early recordings. Hinting at some of the chaotic energy of Berman, Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich’s college-rock days, the song has a perfectly sloppy ’90s lo-fi sound, with fuzzy guitars, slippery drums and a rousingly simple refrain of “Welcome to the sabellion rebellion.” It’s more of a testament to the direction Pavement would take than that of the Jews, but, nevertheless, it stands as a great song in itself and a glimpse into the period when the band was still experimenting to find its own distinct voice

“Snow Is Falling In Manhattan”

There’s no debate as to which 2019 song is the best and truest NYC ballad. It hits different after David Berman’s death last summer, but it maintains the dark, mystical beauty that simmered up the first time I heard it on a sweltering day in July. Hearing Berman’s lyrical poetry is nothing new, but there’s something so special about this particular description of New York. It works almost like an antithesis to Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning.” Her NYC scene was a bright, light spring morning; his, a dark, cozy winter’s night. “Snow is falling in Manhattan / In a slow diagonal fashion / On the Sabbath, as it happens,” he sings. Then, later, the location becomes even more exact as the borough count rises to four: “Coming down in smithereens / On Staten Island, Bronx and Queens / It’s blanketing the city streets.” But he’s safe inside, with a “fire crackling.” And what a comforting vision that is, especially now.

“We Could Be Looking For The Same Thing”

The last Silver Jews track before Berman entered over 10 years of radio silence, “We Could Be Looking For The Same Thing” pulls all types of heartstrings with the delicate duet between David and Cassie Berman. Berman’s music plunges the depths of loneliness so often that it’s refreshing to hear him assert that no matter where someone is in their life, someone else is always out there looking for the same thing. Maybe that sort of pragmatism is anti-romantic, but it’s still comforting to know that people, for the most part, will always need other people.


“People” is one of the jammier cuts from American Water. Stephen Malkmus uses his playful wah-wah tendencies to full effect over Berman’s breezy portrait of life. It’s the band’s idiosyncratic take on the country mentality of employing stock portraits of tiny pleasures (rainbows in garden hoses, sunny and 75 degree days), and throwing out Wittgenstenian lines like “The meaning of the world lies outside the world.” It’s a gentle reminder that remaining interested in the world around us, whether that’s staring out into space or at an unpainted ceiling, makes up a vital part of what being a person is. It’s a musical changeup from “American Water,” complete with wah-wah guitar and an almost-disco backbeat, as well as an emotional digression: Carried away by the giddy music, Berman gazes out his city window and coos, “It’s sunny and 75/It feels so good to be alive.”

Stephen Malkmus gets to sing a bit of the lead vocal on American Water’s “People,” and it’s easy to picture him slyly savouring the song’s wah-wah guitars as he does. But listeners primed for all things slanted-and-enchanted (a phrase Berman coined!) instead found a song that was pure Berman, with turns of phrase vivid enough to become band monikers (“suburban kids with biblical names”), sage advice (“Be careful not to crest too soon”), and another brilliant opening line that now doubles as a lovely epitaph: “Moments can be monuments to you/If your life is interesting and true.”

“How to Rent a Room”

Around 2009, Berman had a confession to make. On a Silver Jews forum, he made two posts, the first announcing that the band was calling it quits, and the second, titled “My Father, My Attack Dog,” revealing what Berman described as “Worse than suicide, worse than crack addiction: My father.” He disclosed that Richard Berman—a notorious lobbyist responsible for dismantling unions, combatting minimum-wage increases and discrediting organizations dedicated to fighting everything from environmental protection to drunk driving—was his father. Berman said within the post that part of what drove him to form Silver Jews, before finally driving him to end it, was the hope of being a force that could amend some part of his father’s damage. He may have come to believe that art couldn’t do enough, but it doesn’t erase the seething vitriol that retrospectively pours from songs like “How To Rent a Room.” It’s one of the more haunting tunes in Berman’s discography, capturing the complexity of both his relationship to his father and his relationship to himself in light of it, ending with this chilling line: “Life should mean a lot less than this.”

Berman is famous for his album-opening couplets. “How to Rent a Room”—the first track from Silver Jews’ second full-length, The Natural Bridge—shows why. “No, I don’t really wanna die/I only wanna die in your eyes,” Berman murmurs gently amid lightly country backing, with a Pavement-free line up behind him that still sounds slack but no longer lo-fi. The track’s later lines resonate just as deeply: “An anchor lets you see the river move,” Berman sings with wisdom to spare.

When The Natural Bridge was released, it was suddenly, starkly apparent that The Silver Jews was Berman’s enterprise. Malkmus and Nastanovich were out, banished to cut Pacific Trim and Brighten the Corners; members of New Radiant Storm King and the Pernice Brothers were in. Though a gentle shagginess suffused the new sound, the playing was tighter. The sentiments were bleaker, more wistful, coy, and philosophical in range. Opener “How to Rent a Room” ranks among Berman’s finest plaints: a sleepy, shuffling earworm far more awake than it really wants to be. It also ushers in a profoundly existential, poetic colours that would characterize his music for the rest of his life. His voice is a distinctive instrument, and you can almost hear him starting to master it here, selling “I wanna wander, through the night/Like a figure in the distance even to my own eye” and “Chalk lines around my body, like the shoreline of a lake” just so. “Room” is heartbroken, funny, ice-cold, and transcendent, all at once. It’s easy to memorize and uncannily comforting to sing while alone, even if its gravity shifts and deepens somewhat between age 19 and age 42.

“Nights That Won’t Happen”

Most of the tracks on Purple Mountains are painful to listen to in light of Berman’s death, possibly none more so than “Nights That Won’t Happen.” The song reads so much like a foreshadowing, opening with the line, “The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind.” Berman led a hard, lonely life, and he poured that heartache into his music, but it was more than a well-crafted spectacle of suffering. This song stares right into the bare pain of existing in the world and rails against it, not necessarily in anger, but in an attempt to emphasize the pockets of empathy and acceptance that remind us, “When the dying’s finally done and the suffering subsides / All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind.” The presence of that void, of acknowledging all the nights that won’t happen, doesn’t end in grieving over them; it ends in holding out hope for all the nights that still could

“The Wild Kindness”

In spite of its title, “The Wild Kindness” opens with menacing reverb to deliver one of the more defiant songs in Silver Jews’ discography. The lyrics mix around the mythic and quotidian, with dogs that stand for kindnesses and silences, motel “voids,” and Manets described as “Oil paintings of X-rated picnics.” As the value of everything melds together into an ambiguous soup, the narrator seems to toe the line between self-abdication and self-annihilation, before reaching a final resolution to continue on, if for nothing else, to “hold the world to its word” in one of the closest things to a Silver Jews anthem.

“The Wild Kindness” is home to one of Stephen Malkmus’ best guitar solos as a Silver Jew. Arriving before the final verse, it sounds warm and jagged and sloppy—the kind of take a session musician would probably want to run through one more time before moving on. In other words, it’s the perfect accompaniment for Berman, whose vocals are similarly charming and imperfect. It’s a prime example of how adept Berman was at collaboration, be it with Malkmus or his final backing band, Woods. Here, he sings in a particularly poetic cadence, “It is autumn and my camouflage is dying.” Instead of finding perfection, he finds a home.

“There Is A Place”

Tanglewood Numbers marked a decisive turn in the sound of Silver Jews. The subdued, mid-tempo alt-country that defined most of their first four albums took a backseat to a larger sound, with a huge list of rotating personnel on the album that brought Malkmus and Nastanovich back into the mix alongside the talents of Will Oldham, William Tyler, Berman’s wife Cassie Berman and others. Nowhere is the sound bigger than on the album’s barn burning closer, “There Is A Place.” It’s difficult not to read the song in light of the change in Berman’s life between the recording of Bright Flight and Tanglewood Numbers. In 2003, he’d attempted suicide through an overdose, only narrowly surviving through the intervention of his wife. After a bout of solipsism following his near death, Berman found himself turning seriously to Judaism for the first time in his life. In one of his last interviews, he described his period of religiousness, saying, “One thing that just seemed absolutely clear to me was that everything was unravelling, and that we were losing the last generations of people who knew how to work the country and knew how to work the institutions.” That sense of prophetic confidence, wisdom and dread explode out of the music as Berman shifts from fearful recollection of a place beyond the blues to manic affirmations of “I saw God’s shadow on this world.” he tempo, noise, aggression and all-around sonic density boil to a fever pitch as it fittingly caps off the loudest of Berman’s musical statements.

“Advice To The Graduate”

The Silver Jews’ origin goes back to the University of Virginia, where founding members and then-students Berman, Malkmus and Nastanovich (along with Yo La Tengo’s James McNew, because why not) played together in the noisy college-rock project Ectoslavia. It’s fitting, then, that one of their first great songs is about the disconnect a graduate feels between what people say to expect for life and how the real world really feels (bearing in mind that Berman, Malkmus and Nastanovich would’ve been splitting a Hoboken apartment while daylighting as security guards and bus drivers around the song’s time of writing). It’s also just a jam with great chemistry between Berman and Malkmus, with loose guitar work that recalls the stronger parts of Slanted and Enchanted-era Pavement. With shambling electric guitar, slippery drums and a guest vocal from Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, Berman’s friend and champion, this track from the first Silver Jews LP, “Starlite Walker,” summons optimism for a graduation speech delivered to whomever needs to hear it: “So get in some licks and hold your head up/And soon you’ll be drinking from that crystal cup.”.

Silver Jews’ first full-length album, Starlite Walker, arrived in 1994. Pavement gate-crashed MTV the same year. Since its members Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich also appeared on the Jews record, many fans discovered Berman through them. “Advice to the Graduate,” a loping Americana rock track in the vein of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, underlined the connection between artists, right down to Malkmus’s vocal assist on the plaintive refrain. But Berman’s gruff delivery and the plainspoken poetry of his lyrics introduced listeners to what was clearly a distinct talent. “On the last day of your life, don’t forget to die,” Berman sings. They’re the sort of words that become a part of you.

“I’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You”

The texture of this song is almost as heartbreakingly gorgeous as Berman’s lyrics on it. Lap-and-steel guitar, subtle theremin wobbles and lush backing vocals hit just the right note to draw out the offhand loneliness when Berman says “I’ve been working at the airport bar, it’s like Christmas in a submarine.” The song, as do many of Berman’s, picks up from the already down-and-out as Berman tries making it up to some flame he’s left behind only to find himself drawn back. With few words, it glides between the strangeness of falling out of love and the sentimental warmth of falling right back in. Whether that juxtaposition fills you with hope or dread is up to you.

Getting into a subculture is easier than getting out of one, Berman knew. He describes a drunk pair of lovers who are regretting their lost lives as they stagger through a rock club. The narrator knows the allure of getting even more lost than ever, and that late-night feeling when “You wanna smoke the gel off a fentanyl patch.” At the end of the song, only love is keeping the couple upright.

I hadn’t listened to any of the Silver Jews albums after I made ’em – until this recent drive up to Chicago [from Nashville], when I listened to them all in a row. I had listened to certain songs [before that], and [1998’s] ‘Night Society’ was one of those instrumentals that I’ve listened to since then. I was like, “Wow, we were really rockin’!”

Then I tested it against ‘Punks in the Beerlight’ because that sounded so much bigger, it was like the [car] stereo was shaking. The end sounds like a heavy truck braking really hard – it was like heavy freight to me. I would say that when I came out of the car, those two songs pleased me the most. Maybe I should have tried to rock harder earlier.

Tanglewood Numbers, Silver Jews’ fifth album, was Berman’s comeback record after he embraced sobriety and religion, and it kicks off with all the energy of a second wind. His band, which now included Malkmus, Nastanovich, Cassie, Bobby Bare Jr., Paz Lenchantin, and William Tyler, also sounded rejuvenated, now more adept at adding drama and momentum to his observations. So while he and Cassie sing to each other about how drunk and sick and bad things might get, the message of “Punks in the Beerlight” sounds more like a celebration. “Aintcha heard the news?” Berman sings. “Adam and Eve were Jews.” Here was a tale as old as time, sung like there was no tomorrow.

“San Francisco B.C.”

Many of David Berman’s best-loved songs are tragedies, but “San Francisco B.C.” is pure comedy. With enough plot twists and dialogue to warrant the Coen Brothers treatment, it’s a narrative unlike anything on its surrounding record—the comparatively zoomed-out Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea—and a standout in Silver Jews’ catalogue. The characters are cloaked in several layers of irony—even their haircuts are “sarcastic”—and their fates are strange and intertwined. When our protagonist is told that he doesn’t make enough money, his response is, “What about the stuff that we—quote—’believe?’” The air quotes speak as loudly as the words, while the band rides an uncharacteristically rollicking surf-rock riff toward its twisted, karmic conclusion .

“The Poor, The Fair, and The Good”

When Cassie Marnett—later Cassie Berman—joined the Silver Jews and illuminated Berman’s life, the band’s duets took on a new poignance. This Tanglewood Numbers gem, a lighthouse of hope in a stormy sea, finds them at their collaborative best: “The river winds ’round these little green hills/And stays in the woods for days/We were built to consider the unmanifested/And make of love an immaculate place.” In the wake of Purple Mountains and Berman’s suicide, this can be a tough song to return to.

“Black and Brown Blues”

Berman’s music has an uncanny knack for being able to say so much without really saying much. “Black and Brown Blues” literally follows the singer as he chooses between putting on a pair of black or brown shoes, and in that moment of reflection, conjures images of kings trapped in golden rooms, jaded skylines of car keys and corduroy suits made of a hundred rain gutters. These are some of Berman’s most evocative lyrics, all pouring out over the simple decision to make any decision at all.

People get used to reactions to their songs, but I don’t have the sense of my songs being [successful that way]. But I know people love that song – they go crazy for it.

Black and Brown Blues’ and ‘Pretty Eyes’ were the first songs I wrote after [1994’s] Starlite Walker. And for Starlite Walker, I had just enough material to call it an album. I had to add in an instrumental passage here [‘The Moon is the Number 18’] and a spoken word passage there [‘The Country Diary of a Subway Conductor’]. ‘Trains Across the Sea’ was the first real song I ever wrote. That one and ‘New Orleans’. [Then] I just had to fill up space. ‘Advice To The Graduate’ is good too, but the rest aren’t really songs.

And so with Natural Bridge, I was really proud that I thought of those two really quickly, in a couple weeks. I was like, “Wow, this seems better. I like them all the way through.” I really lucked out, ’cause those could be bad lines, about the shoes and the corduroy suit. They’re on the edge. [Laughs] I do feel like it works, but I feel lucky that it works.

“I Remember Me”

There are whiffs of narrative in Berman’s music, but most of it rests in an abstract, internal space. Then there’s “I Remember Me.” Through five-and-a-half minutes, it charts in painstaking, country-esque detail a ballad of two people falling in love. But right when the man gets on his knee to propose, he’s hit by a runaway truck. Waking from a coma years later, he finds his love’s married a banker in Oklahoma and, stuck on the land he’s bought with his settlement, feeling the metal of the truck that tore him from his dreams, remembers the people they once were. It’s a brutal distillation of how it feels like to live in the past and a standout among the almost categorically bleak tracks on Bright Flight.

“Trains Across The Sea”

Berman said that “Trains Across The Sea” was the first real song he wrote. If that’s true, it was a hell of a start. Musically, the song’s about as simple as they come: two chords, guitars, drums and just a sprinkle of keyboard. Berman’s lyrics and delivery is the glue that brings it all together. Wiser beyond his 27 years, he strikes a balance between world-weary, concerned, comforting, resilient and resigned, spewing one instantly quotable line after another. “Half hours on earth, what are they worth? I don’t know / In 27 years, I’ve drunk fifty thousand beers, and they just wash against me, like a sea into a pier.” These sort of lines, poetic without any pretense, cryptic enough not to mean anything in particular but moving enough to mean something to anyone, are the Silver Jews at their most potent and Berman at his most irreplaceable .Melancholy piano gives way to a country-ish shuffle, including lap-steel guitar, on this “Starlite Walker” track. Its final line is a memorable image of alcohol’s familiar comfort and slow erosion: “In 27 years/I drunk 50,000 beers/and they just wash against me/like the sea into a pier.”

The way David Berman told it, “Trains Across the Sea” is the first song he ever wrote. Musically, it’s not so hard to believe; two major chords wobbling back and forth, the kind of thing a band can learn in the time it takes to hear it. The words, however, already sound like the work of a veteran writer, full of quiet poetry and unanswerable questions. “In 27 years, I’ve drunk 50,000 beers,” he sings in its final lines. “And they just wash against me/Like the sea into a pier.” Then he hums a bit as the song fades, deceptively casual but hellbent on leaving a mark.

Berman mothballed Silver Jews in 2009, then came back this summer under a new moniker and with a new dedication — the songs are fuller and closer to rock ’n’ roll, the vocals less tossed away, and the lyrics flood out of him. “I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion/Day to day, I’m neck and neck with giving in,” he sings, but he sounds hearteningly, hilariously committed to holding out.

“Random Rules”

“In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection,” Berman says, adding to his vast repertoire of unforgettable opening lines. What proceeds from there is not so much a sketch as a world in miniature, touching on love, time, loss and the general chaos of being a living, changing thing in a world changing at the same time. Buffeted with melancholy horns, Berman’s wry delivery becomes both terrifying and comforting, a reminder of the randomness that prevails in our lives as well as a guide toward accepting it. The best-known Silver Jews song opens their beloved third album, “American Water,” with a deadpan wink: “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.” A maudlin horn keeps Berman company as he struggles to accept the way lives are buffeted by chaos and loss.

I never checked to make sure that everything in that song world was coherent. They have sites where people try to figure out what a song means, [but] I never played the whole thing out to see the characters and what they were doing. So I just took a shot at the line about the tan line on the ring finger.

I didn’t really realise until yesterday that that’s the guy’s sign that there’s some hope, because he’s seeing this ex in this place and it appears that things aren’t going well: “You look like someone I used to know.” He still clearly desires her, and he says that before he goes he has to ask about the tan line on the ring finger. Does that mean she took her ring off right before they spoke? Which would belie all the attitude before that. Other people probably saw that before, but I never saw it. I just thought it sounded cool.

Another of Berman’s instant-classic album openers: “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection/Slowly screwing my way across Europe, they had to make a correction.” These lines from “Random Rules” set the stage for Silver Jews’ third album, 1998’s American Water, and also the way his entire career would be perceived: Here was a man too brilliant for his own health, held captive by unseen forces. The return of Stephen Malkmus helped solidify what became Silver Jews’ touchstone album. Berman’s careful lyrics, sung in a stoic deadpan, offer as much as you’re willing to accept from them. It’s not a song about guidelines that are random, but about how randomness prevails.

This fan-favourite number from fan-favourite LP American Water plays like an impressionistic dream, so amiable that it’s easy to miss the lyrical devastation left in its wake. Malkmus is back on board for this casual bummer, with Mike Fellows, Tim Barnes, and Chris Stroffolino rounding out “the American Water Band.”

David Berman once sang, “all my favourite singers couldn’t sing.” It wasn’t Berman’s forte either, and rather than try to sweeten his crooked croak, he took a deadpan approach to his music, which was consumed with classic literary themes: death, family, booze, escaping fate and finality. Berman occupied a cultural midpoint between Townes Van Zandt and Raymond Carver, and his imagistic, lively, endlessly quotable lyrics always had a cleverness buoying the emotional struggles and glimpses of life at the margins.  leaves behind a rich legacy: thirty years of music, a celebrated poetry collection and a bizarre book of cartoons, a treasure trove of interviews both puny and expansive, dozens of random acts of generosity, and legions of adoring, teary fans. That he took his life by hanging at the age of 52 is an awful fact, but in time, his affecting, essential songwriting—blithe, literate, ponderous, hilarious, despairing—will eclipse the tragedy of his passing.