Despite initially – and inaccurately – being viewed as a Pavement side project, David Berman’s Silver Jews now rightfully occupies a place in the indie rock canon. Between 1994 and 2008, Berman oversaw six albums under the moniker, all of which were released via Chicago indie mavericks, Drag City.
Berman’s songwriting revolves around his deadpan baritone and sharp lyricism, which was just as often funny as it was perspective-altering. This quality was amplified by Berman’s 1999 poetry collection, Actual Air, and endured into his surprise comeback album, Purple Mountains, which arrived in July 2019.
On Wednesday August 7, Drag City confirmed the sad news of Berman’s passing. He will be dearly missed, but his catalogue is rich, varied and rewards repeated listening. Here are ten Berman essentials from Silver Jews and Purple Mountains.
Trains Across the Sea, Starlite Walker (1994, Silver Jews)
‘Trains Across the Sea’ kicks off Silver Jews’ 1994 debut, Starlite Walker. Berman’s backed on the record by his college pals and Pavement mainstays, Stephen Malkmus, Bob Nastanovich and Steve West. However, while the two projects share an observational literacy and crooked stylistic gait, ‘Trains’ underscores Berman’s darkly tinted, droll existentialism.
“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 the sea into a pier.”
How to Rent a Room, The Natural Bridge (1996, Silver Jews)
Berman’s vehement disdain for his father is no secret. In a post to the Drag City message board in 2009 (shortly after announcing the band’s dissolution), he revealed he was the son of Richard Berman, a PR executive and lobbyist whose achievements include freezing the national minimum wage and attacking “animal lovers, ecologists, civil action attorneys, scientists, dieticians, doctors, teachers.”
“My father is a despicable man,” wrote Berman. “My father is a sort of human molestor. An exploiter. A scoundrel.”
‘How to Rent a Room’ opens the Jews’ second album, The Natural Bridge, and it’s hard not to construe the lyrics as gesturing towards Berman Snr. “No, I don’t really want to die / I only want to die in your eyes,” sings Berman at the song’s outset. The song finishes with a wearied request for a discontinuation of drama: “Grant me one last wish / Life should mean a lot less than this.”
Black and Brown Blues, The Natural Bridge (1996, Silver Jews)
Berman originally tracked The Natural Bridge with Massachusetts band, the Scud Mountain Boys, but the sessions missed the mark and ended up in the bin. An attempt to make the album with Malkmus, Nostanovich and West was even more of a fizzer. He got there eventually with a little help from Drag City producer Rian Murphy, and no evidence of the record’s unsteady lead-up remains.
Take ‘Black and Brown Blues’, for example, an enveloping, imagery-rich alt-country tune that boasts a succession of knockout verses, such as this:
“It’s raining triple sec in Tchula and the radio plays ‘Crazy Train’ / There’s a quadroon ball in the beehive, hanging out in the rain / And when there’s trouble, I don’t like running / But I’m afraid I got more in common with who I was than who I am becoming.”
Random Rules, American Water (1998, Silver Jews)
Widely considered the Jews’ magnum opus, 1998’s American Water begins with one of the all-time great opening lines: “In 1984 I was hospitalised for approaching perfection.”
It’s laugh out loud funny, even though you realise Berman’s primary purpose isn’t to trip the giggle switch. Silver Jews’ most loved song ponders the idea that there’s no design to human life – everything happens according to random rules, which aren’t really rules at all. It’s a sobering insight, but it won’t stop you from laughing again when Berman begins verse two by singing, “I know that a lot of what I say has been lifted off of men’s room walls.”
People, American Water (1998, Silver Jews)
Berman’s lyrics might be the thing that keeps listeners coming back to the Silver Jews catalogue, but he also knew his way around a hooky melody. ‘People’ is a prime selection for indie rock karaoke and one instance where the Pavement similarities can’t be ignored (Malkmus was back on lead guitar for American Water and co-wrote a few of the tracks).
‘People’ looks at how the meaning in our lives isn’t inherent, but imposed. “The meaning of the world lies outside the world,” sings Berman, leaving it up to you to decide whether that’s a nod to god or just human rationality.
Berman himself is wary of the human quest to attain absolute mastery: “People send people up to the Moon / When they return, well there isn’t much / People be careful not to crest too soon.”
I Remember Me, Bright Flight (2001, Silver Jews)
Berman’s wife, Cassie, featured on each of the final three Silver Jews albums, beginning with 2001’s Bright Flight. The record’s standout song, ‘I Remember Me’, was written in reference to Berman’s prolonged failure to pop the question to Cassie. As he told Pitchfork in 2002, “I knew I was going to eventually, but was happy to think of it always as nine months off, when I had a little more money or something.”
Berman uses ‘I Remember Me’ to rouse himself into action. It’s a straight narrative depiction of a couple who’re blissfully in love. When it comes time for the proposal, however, tragedy strikes:
“One day they were cutting flowers for something to do / On the bank of the road ‘neath the cotton woods / And he turned to her to ask if she’d marry him / When a runaway truck hit him where he stood.”
I’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You, Tanglewood Numbers (2005, Silver Jews)
Tanglewood Numbers was preceded by some significant disruptions in Berman’s personal life. In late 2003 he attempted suicide in his adopted home city of Nashville by consuming a lethal combination of prescription drugs and illegal narcotics. Following a spell in rehab, he was able to get 100% sober for the making of the Jews’ fifth studio LP.
Thankfully, tracks like ‘I’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You’ proved his trademark wit had survived unharmed. He concludes the song with a decidedly unromantic interpolation of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Stardust’:
“Now my ex-wife’s living in the suburbs with her guru and her mom / Now she finds her consolation in the stardust of a bong / You can call it a spinoff, say it’s a knockoff, title it part two.”
Suffering Jukebox, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (2008, Silver Jews)
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea received mixed critical feedback upon its release in 2008. Who knows if this influenced Berman’s decision to pull the plug on the band less than 12 months later, but the aforementioned post to the Drag City message board stated, “I always said we would stop before we got bad. If I continue to record I might accidentally write the answer song to Shiny Happy People.”
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea might be a lighter offering than the earlier Jews records, but is it bad? No way. The major highlight, ‘Suffering Jukebox’, is a psychedelic country sing-along that shows empathy for a neglected jukebox:
“Suffering jukebox in a happy town / You’re over in the corner breakin’ down / They always seem to keep you way down low / The people in this town don’t want to know.”
All My Happiness Is Gone, Purple Mountains (2019, Purple Mountains)
After an 11-year absence, Berman returned in May 2019 with the first single from his new project, Purple Mountains. ‘All My Happiness Is Gone’ starts off with a flourish of chamber pop synthesisers akin to Mercury Rev. It’s a beautiful lubricant for a suite of David Berman originals, but it quickly becomes apparent that there’s nothing ironic about the title.
“Friends are warmer than gold when you’re old,” goes the song’s opening line. “And keeping them is harder than you might suppose / Lately, I tend to make strangers wherever I go / Some of them were once people I was happy to know.”
I Loved Being My Mother’s Son, Purple Mountains (2019, Purple Mountains)
‘I Loved Being My Mother’s Son’ was the catalyst for the Purple Mountains project. After his mum died, Berman found solace in playing the guitar again. In a June 2019 Exclaim interview he revealed that the song’s chord progression comforted him: “I knew it was about my mum but it didn’t have any words. I knew from the uplift and the sweetness in it.”
His warm feelings for his mother are a stark contrast to his relationship with his father. As such, ‘I Loved Being My Mother’s Son’ finds Berman at his most direct and purposive. And despite the song’s uplifting timbre, it’s a real tearjerker.
“She helped me walk, she watched me run / She got where I was coming from / And when I couldn’t count my friends on a single thumb / I loved her to the maximum.”