An Introduction to David Berman

An Introduction To Pavement Month

Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with Pavement should know the name David Berman. A college friend of Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, Berman formed Ectoslavia with the two future Pavement members while all three were attending the University of Virginia in the late-1980s. Upon graduation, the trio moved to New Jersey, took jobs as security guards at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, and formed a new musical project, Silver Jews.

Silver Jews’ early recordings were in line with the contemporary “lo fi” scene – scratchy and amateurish, but demonstrating a melodic sensibility that would eventually come to the fore of Malkmus’ songcraft. By the time of the project’s debut full-length – 1994’s Starlite Walker – their sound had evolved into something far more conventionally palatable, defined primarily by Berman’s lyrical prowess and deadpan vocal delivery. However, the intervening years had also seen Pavement achieve widespread acclaim for their first two LPs, Slanted and Enchanted (1992) and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994).

Though the frequent characterization as a “Pavement side project” is both misleading and reductive, Silver Jews’ connection to Pavement is central to both band’s legacies. Due to a variety of factors, Malkmus, Nastanovich, and Pavement drummer Steve West would be on-again/off-again members of the project – ultimately contributing significantly to each “odd numbered” entry in Silver Jews’ six-album catalog (Starlite Walker, 1998’s American Water, and 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers), but absent entirely from the “even numbered” ones (1996’s The Natural Bridge, 2001’s Bright Flight, and 2008’s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea).

As the sole constant member of the project, Silver Jews became synonymous with David Berman. Despite his budding career as a poet, struggles with addiction, and a 2003 suicide attempt, Silver Jews albums appeared on regular two-to-three-year intervals between 1994 and 2008. The band even settled into a lineup stasis during the 2000s, and – aided by his wife Cassie’s presence as the group’s bassist – Berman got over his long-held reluctance to perform live, embarking on a series of tours from 2006-09.

In early 2009 Berman announced that he was retiring from music. His reasons were complex, centered in part around a difficult public reconciliation with his father’s career as a high-powered Washington lobbyist. In a much-discussed piece that accompanied his announcement of Silver Jews’ dissolution, Berman referred to his father, Richard Berman – notoriously referred to in a 60 Minutes piece as ”Dr. Evil” – as a ”despicable man” and ”human molester,” due to his advocacy for the firearm and tobacco industries and his tireless anti-union campaigning. David’s retirement announcement indicated his determination to counter his father’s life’s work, but acknowledged to futility of doing so with rock music.

After a decade away from music, Berman announced a return in 2019: not with Silver Jews, but with a new group, Purple Mountains. The project’s self-titled album arrived in July of that year to critical acclaim – with many citing it as the finest work of Berman’s career. It seemed as if the record was ushering in one of those all-too-rare “second acts.” Instead, it would serve as an epilogue. Purple Mountains’ lyrical content was undoubtedly downcast (not exactly a new thing for Berman), but the new songs revealed troubling developments in his life: deepening isolation from his social circle, a separation from Cassie, and continuing struggles with drug and alcohol addiction.

Less than a month after the release of Purple Mountains, and on the eve of a tour to promote the album, David Berman was found dead in a Brooklyn apartment – a victim of suicide. Tributes poured in from around the musical world. Collaborators such as Malkmus, Nastanovich, and The Avalanches offered touching perspective on the loss. No less an authority on the subject of songcraft than the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle praised Berman as “Of, loosely, my generation of songwriters, the best of us.”

The best testament to Berman is the body of work that he left behind: seven albums, a handful of LPs, and the 1999 poetry collection, Actual Air. The following playlist collects several of the highlights of Berman’s musical career with Silver Jews and Purple Mountains. Most of these picks were obvious choices, but there are a few personal favorites scattered throughout. Each track is prefaced by a particular lyric – a line, a verse, or a couplet – that provides a glimpse into a singular songwriting talent.

Silver Jews

“Random Rules”

from American Water (1998)

In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection

The line above is followed by an expansive travelogue that may make for the best song in David Berman’s catalog (it landed at #460 in our A Century of Song project), but as album opening statements go, it stands in rarified air. Delivered in his best shaggy dog voice, the line’s bravado potential is immediately undercut by Berman’s legendarily self-effacing charm. Aided by Stephen Malkmus’ winding guitar leads and a semi-celebratory trumpet, “Random Rules” sets Silver Jews’ signature album up on a fantastic high note.

Silver Jews

“Trains Across the Sea”

from Starlite Walker (1994)

In 27 years I’ve drunk fifty thousand beers
And they just wash against me like the sea into a pier

The homespun nature of the recording and performances found throughout 1994’s Starlite Walker may have suggested something unassuming, but David Berman’s songwriting was fully formed from the outset. As the first proper song on Silver Jews’ debut LP, “Trains Across the Sea” set a high bar, and it would remain one of the project’s signature tracks.

Silver Jews

“Pet Politics”

from The Natural Bridge (1996)

She was shiverin’ so hard it looked like there were two of her

1996’s The Natural Bridge was a much darker affair than its predecessor, but the album found Berman’s songwriting reaching a new level of sophistication and nuance. While there’s nary a weak track to be found – it’s more heavily-represented on this list than any other record – “Pet Politics” stands out as a particularly impactful highlight, with its desperate imagery supported by a particularly dour musical backing.

Silver Jews

“I Remember Me”

from Bright Flight (2001)

And they slow danced so the needle wouldn’t skip
Until the room was filled with light

David Berman could write a tearjerker with the best of them, and this track from 2001’s Bright Flight may just contain the most devastating story in his body of work. The cinematic details that Berman paints in not only reveal a master’s touch, but they also seem to indicate great affection for the characters, making the song’s conclusion all the more heartbreaking.

Silver Jews

“Secret Knowledge of Backroads”

from The Arizona Record [EP] (1993)

And he wants to be all by himself beside the sea

Silver Jews released a pair of EPs prior to their full-length debut – both of which are presently available as part of the 2012 compilation, Early Times. While a great deal rougher than their later work, these recordings show Berman’s budding songwriting talent, and nowhere more than on the opening track to 1993’s The Arizona Record. Pavement would also record “Secret Knowledge of Backroads” for a 1992 session with the legendary BBC deejay John Peel, but the original recording best captures the collaborative spirit of Silver Jews’ formative period.

Silver Jews

“Punks in the Beerlight”

from Tanglewood Numbers (2005)

Where’s the paper bag that holds the liquor?
Just in case I feel the need to puke

Compared to Silver Jews’ ramshackle early days, the new wave inspired arrangement of “Punks in the Beerlight” may seem a bit disorienting, but the leadoff track to 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers retains the same underdog quality that was a constant throughout David Berman’s career. In a particularly revealing moment, he echoes Cassie Berman’s bridge refrain of, “If it ever gets really, really bad” with a sharp retort: “Let’s not kid ourselves / It gets really, really bad.” To put it mildly, Berman had seen some hard times in the previous few years, but “Punks in the Beerlight” found him reemerging, battle-scarred but triumphant nonetheless.

Silver Jews

“Smith & Jones Forever”

from American Water (1998)

Got two tickets to a midnight execution
We’ll hitchhike our way from Odessa to Houston

And when they turn on the chair
Something’s added to the air

Among the most musically intriguing tracks in Silver Jews’ discography, “Smith & Jones Forever” – like much of 1998’s American Water – is carried in large part by Stephen Malkmus’ serpentine guitar work. The scene in the song’s ominous final verse (quoted above) is magnified as the instruments largely recede from the mix, only to return for one last refrain.

Purple Mountains

“All My Happiness is Gone”

from Purple Mountains (2019)

Lately, I tend to make strangers wherever I go
Some of them were once people I was happy to know

The surprise first single from Purple Mountains’ self-titled 2019 LP, “All My Happiness is Gone” was greeted exactly as one would expect a great song from a beloved, long dormant artist to be. The driving instrumental, provided by the members of the band Woods, diverted some of the attention from the bleakness of Berman’s lyrics – bleakness that would take on a deeper profundity shortly after the song’s arrival.

Silver Jews

“We Could Be Looking for the Same Thing”

from Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (2008)

I hope I don’t come across as a coyote in your eyes
But I been around some and I’ve seen
Enough to know we could both spend happy lives
Inside the days of you and me

While the final Silver Jews album is generally regarded as the weakest of the project’s six full-length LPs, it still contains several highlights – fourteen years later, I’m still not sure if “Party Barge” counts as one of those. Even detractors tend to agree that Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea ends on a high note, as “We Could Be Looking for the Same Thing” is a charming mid-tempo ballad that matches David and Cassie Berman’s vocals to an uncharacteristically optimistic set of lyrics.

Silver Jews

“How to Rent a Room”

from The Natural Bridge (1996)

No, I don’t really want to die
I only want to die in your eyes

There’s no more analyzed couplet in David Berman’s discography than the above-quoted lines that open 1996’s The Natural Bridge. While great album-opening lines would become a Berman calling card, they always served equally stellar songs. “How to Rent a Room” is no exception. It launched a new phase of Silver Jews’ career on a high note, and would remain one of the project’s most beloved tracks.

Silver Jews

“Slow Education”

from Bright Flight (2001)

When God was young He made the wind and the sun
And since then it’s been a slow education

And here’s another example of one of those great opening statements. 2001’s Bright Flight faced the uphill task of following two outstanding predecessors, but it has become a dark horse favorite among many Silver Jews fans. “Slow Education” established the country leanings that would permeate throughout the album, while simultaneously showing that Berman’s songwriting remained in peak form.

Silver Jews

“Advice to the Graduate”

from Starlite Walker (1994)

So you’ve got no friends and you wander through the night
And now you watch the sunrise through a rifle-sight

The “Pavement side project” narrative took hold quickly upon the release of Starlite Walker – arriving the same year as Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – and no song on the record invited the comparison more than the album’s centerpiece, “Advice to the Graduate.” Featuring prominent vocals from Stephen Malkmus and a crescendo that undoubtedly recalled Pavement’s recent work, “Advice” provided a natural bridge (wink) between two great acts.

Purple Mountains

“That’s Just the Way That I Feel”

from Purple Mountains (2019)

And as the pace of life keeps quickening
Beneath the bitching and the bickering
When I try to drown my thoughts in gin
I find my worst ideas know how to swim

It’s a right of passage for up-and-coming songwriters to stand in the shadow of Bob Dylan, but – as far as I’ve seen – David Berman never quite drew the comparison. With that said, there’s something particularly Dylan-esque about the opening track to Purple Mountains. Perhaps it’s the arrangement. Perhaps it’s the wit. Perhaps it’s the deeply-detailed travelogue. I’m not saying that Berman needed to carry the burden of expectations associated with being one in a long line of “Next Dylans,” but far lesser songwriters had received far greater praise.

Silver Jews

“People”

from American Water (1998)

It’s sunny and 75
It feels so good to be alive

There are better lyrics from “People” than the above-quoted couplet – I’ve always liked the imagery of “suburban kids with biblical names” – but it’s kind of nice to hear such an upbeat sentiment expressed by David Berman. One of the most effervescent tracks in his body of work, the American Water highlight is borderline funky, with its buoyant bass line, crisp drums, and Malkmus’ wah-wah guitar. It makes for something of an anomaly, but a wholly welcome one.

Silver Jews

“Dallas”

from The Natural Bridge (1996)

O Dallas, you shine with an evil light
How’d you turn a billion steers
Into buildings made of mirrors?
And why am I drawn to you tonight?

One of David Berman’s more musically complex tracks, “Dallas” effectively switches back-and-forth between major- and minor-key segments – all unfolding in a rather unique way. I know I’ve already highlighted an excerpt of lyrics, but special praise must also be given for the self-effacing humor of Berman’s proclamation: “‘Hey boys, supper’s on me, our record just went aluminum.'”

Silver Jews

“New Orleans”

from Starlite Walker (1994)

Well, we’re trapped inside the song
Where the nights are so long

The third great track from Starlite Walker, “New Orleans” is another one in which Stephen Malkmus truly makes his presence felt. Retaining some of the experimentalism of early Silver Jews recordings, it ultimately evolves into a fever dream that contains allusions to “House of the Rising Sun,” legends of Spanish gold, and haunted hallways. The winding narrative disappears as quickly as it had appeared, but the impression that it leaves is lasting.

Purple Mountains

“Nights That Won’t Happen”

from Purple Mountains (2019)

When the dying’s finally done and the suffering subsides
All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind

David Berman’s most beautiful song is also his most heart-wrenching. Bathed in a lush backdrop of vibraphone, Mellotron, and ethereal backing vocals, “Nights That Won’t Happen” went from affecting to almost unbearably morose in the aftermath of Berman’s passing. It’s a gorgeous track – and rightfully made it onto A Century of Song – but it’s little short of devastating.

Silver Jews

“Tennessee”

from Bright Flight (2001)

You know Louisville is death, we’ve got to up and move
Because the dead do not improve

Another standout from Bright Flight, “Tennessee” may be best remembered for its flippant use of an old come on (“You’re the only ten I see”), but it’s one of the more compositionally ambitious tracks in Silver Jews’ discography. Featuring a memorable appearance by Cassie Berman on vocals, “Tennessee” is characteristic of many of David Berman’s best songs, in that it’s immediately appealing, but reveals more depth with each successive listen.

Silver Jews

“The Frontier Index”

from The Natural Bridge (1996)

When I was younger, I was a cobra
In every case, I wanted to be cool
Now that I’m older and sub-space is colder
Just wanna say something true

Another one of Berman’s most ambitious tracks, “The Frontier Index” packs several different modes and vivid scenes into a compact framework to provide a late-album highlight to 1996’s The Natural Bridge. Each verse appears as a vignette, the sum total of which make for one of the most cryptic, but affecting, songs of Berman’s career.

Silver Jews

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

from Tanglewood Numbers (2005)

I’ve been working at the airport bar
It’s like Christmas in a submarine
Wings and brandy on a winter’s night
I guess you wouldn’t call it a scene

Much of 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers has a restorative quality, reflecting the improved outlook that David Berman had following his 2003 suicide attempt. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the album centerpiece, “I’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You,” which reads as something of an ode to his wife Cassie, who at that point was not only Berman’s personal rock, but also an integral part of Silver Jews.

Silver Jews

“The Wild Kindness”

from American Water (1998)

I dyed my hair in a motel void
Met the coroner at the Dreamgate Frontier
He took my hand, and said, “I’ll help you, boy
If you really want to disappear”

The pulsating closer to American Water, “The Wild Kindness” would feature one of Berman’s most evocative set of lyrics to date, and a fantastic contribution from Stephen Malkmus. It’s Malkmus’ guitar solo that pushes the song to a different level musically, but Berman’s deadpan vocals provide a stoic counterpart to the eerie atmosphere and dynamic shifts.

Silver Jews

“Pretty Eyes”

from The Natural Bridge (1996)

One of these days, these days will end

Mostly a solo performance by David Berman – he strums the acoustic guitar and provides the tasteful piano accompaniment – “Pretty Eyes” closes out The Natural Bridge on a poignant note. Caught between the melancholy existentialism of the preceding nine tracks and a tempered sense of optimism, the song manages to encompass the complexity, the charm, and the idiosyncratic nature of a brilliant artist in a single compelling recording.

Author

  • Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

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