The late Silver Jews frontman understood humanity on a deep level, that sometimes life could be awful, but here he was singing about it anyway.

By Sam Hockley-Smith
August 08, 2019 at 06:29 PM EDT
Edd Westmacott/Photoshot/Getty Images

There is a version of this piece that is only David Berman lyrics and poem excerpts, no other text. It is one of the few cases where, even without hearing the music, it would convey what it was supposed to convey: David Berman made songs with the kind of off-kilter insight and lived-in wisdom that can only be described as casually brilliant. His words could sneak up on you, and then they’d lodge in your skull forever. 

If you are unfamiliar with the work of David Berman, know that you’re not actually unfamiliar with the work David Berman. As the frontman of Silver Jews, he helped define what we understand indie rock to be: laconic songs about life and god and death and love sung without precision, but with heart. Messy music that felt real because it was messy. When we talk about indie rock, we talk about Pavement, and Silver Jews at its inception included Berman’s college friends Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich. The sonic similarities are apparent — both bands worked with a willful sloppiness that made their music sound more human. The flaws were part of the makeup of the music. 

Berman’s label, Drag City, announced that Berman was dead on August 7th, 2019, just a few weeks after the release of his latest album under the name Purple Mountains, which he recorded with the band Woods. The Purple Mountains album was something of a revelation. It was functionally no different than every other Silver Jews album — he was working with a different band, sure, but he was still singing songs that transmuted mundane day-to-day existence into a weird, funny, dark, and sad world. Typically, when we talk about musicians, we talk about how they tried to reinvent their sound as they kept going, how they switched up their style in an attempt to become new. Berman did not do that. He returned to the well to try to puzzle through existence again and again. 

There is no bad place to start with Berman’s music, but if you really needed to start somewhere, then listen to the 1998 Silver Jews album American Water. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love American Water, which is odd, because it’s a very specific record. Berman is not a traditionally “good” singer, but the emotion his voice carries is a little bewildered, at a slight remove from whatever he’s observing, but still capturing the essential humanness of existence.

In a July 2019 interview with The Poetry Foundation Berman says, “Some people like my singing. But it sounds like bad singing to a lot of other people. Anyone who knowingly plays my music to alienate someone they know won’t like it is out of the Hope Club cause you obviously don’t Hope the first Hope. The second hope is that it gets to those isolated individuals who really are bound to like it.” Berman’s music wasn’t for everyone, but if you connected with it even a little bit, you were all but guaranteed to fall for it.

American Water is not exactly a rock record, but it is an American record, and the same goes for the rest of the Silver Jews catalogue. Berman’s songs are filled with drifters, barflies, the devastated and the downtrodden, but they’re not necessarily coated in darkness. Has there been a better, more conflicted description of America than when he sings “I love to see a rainbow from a garden hose/ Lit up like the blood of a centerfold/ I love the city and the city rain/ Suburban kids with biblical names / People ask people to watch their scotch/ People send people up to the moon/ When they return, well, there isn’t much/ People be careful not to crest too soon” on American Water’s “People”? Captured in that one verse is an entire panorama of American history: space travel, the simple summer innocence of water from a garden hose bending through the air… and then that last line twists a knife. In just a few words, Berman is able to caution against the endless quest for progress, warning of what we leave behind. In the hands of most songwriters, this whole bit would be preachy, but Berman, as he always did, sounded bemused. He’s not above any of it, he’s in it with the rest of us.

Still, the Silver Jews album I come back to the most is 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers. That album was released two years after Berman attempted suicide in Nashville. When his wife, Cassie, found him he refused to go to the hospital, instead requesting that they travel to the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel, where Al Gore stayed in 2000 during the agonizing election recount that paved the way for George W. Bush to become president. When he got to the hotel, he apparently told the bellhop that he wanted to “die where the presidency died.”

Tanglewood Numbers is a complicated album. Berman was mostly sober, though he was smoking weed daily. It is, on the surface, an optimistic album, but lyrically it skewed dark and unflinching. The album opens with “Punks in the Beerlight,” which features a devastating back and forth between Berman and Cassie, who sings “If it gets really really bad, if it ever gets really really bad…” trailing off as Berman comes in with a defeated response: “Let’s not kid ourselves, it gets really really bad.” The weirdest part about that moment is that as you’re listening to it, you realize it’s comforting. Berman understood humanity on a deep level, that sometimes life could be awful, but here he was singing about it anyway. He was proof that bad could pave the way for something better, or at least something slightly less bad. He seemed to understand in a way that no one else did that life did not exist as a clean arc, which makes it especially sad that he’s no longer living.

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