Although he has always operated on the fringes of the indie world, it’s impossible to overstate Berman’s importance to and influence on the best songwriters of the past two decades. Without Berman, there would have been no Pavement, no Hold Steady, no Conor Oberst. Because Berman is first and foremost a poet, his songs are full of characters and stories that exist on the fringes of society alongside him, whether they be thieves, liars, or poets themselves.

The Silver Jews, as the story goes, formed when Berman was working as a security guard at an art museum alongside Stephen Malkmus, who would later go on to found Pavement. Berman’s friendship and association with Malkmus, and Pavement percussionist Bob Nastanovich, unfortunately led to the Silver Jews initially being perceived as a Pavement side project, despite attempts by Malkmus and Berman to conceal the identity of the members of the band. Had the Silver Jews possessed a sound similar to Pavement and had they formed after that project, this would have been more logical, but from the beginning the group pursued a sound unlike Pavement or any other “college rock” band of the era. Berman’s vocals, unlike Malkmus’s reedy, quavering near-falsetto, could more accurately be described as Leonard Cohen on morphine, and the music behind the voice was at first similarly lethargic, closer to the country-tinged experimental work of contemporaries Lambchop at times and at other moments more reminiscent of Nick Lowe at his rowdiest.

Debut Starlite Walker is very much the work of a group still recklessly ambling between these two extremes, yet its ramshackle nature uniquely manages to add to the experience; rather than sounding like an amateurish mess, Starlite is comforting in its easy going demeanor, sounding like some friends getting together for a jam session that somehow winds up becoming a classic. Starlite also prominently featured Stephen Malkmus on vocals and guitar, aiding in the Pavement associations that would forever haunt the band. The juxtaposition between Malkmus’s hippiefied slacker guitar lines and Berman’s country rock structures would also set the template for releases to come.

More accomplished, though, is the next pairing of Malkmus and Berman, American Water, which features a tighter band and more adventurous structures. Water immediately makes its intentions clear with “Random Rules” which features the greatest opening line of all time, Berman’s legendary declaration that “In 1984/ I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.” “Random Rules” introduces brass parts lifted straight from George Jones’s back catalogue while Malkmus offers up a guitar solo that sounds like he recorded it while in the midst of a dream. It only takes two tracks for Water to prove itself to be the quintessential Berman/Malkmus pairing, with “Smith and Jones Forever” appearing like some long lost theme song to a Western featuring the unlikely duo as morbid voyeurs, with “two tickets to a midnight execution” where they chant that “when they turn on the chair/ Something’s added to the air/ Forever.” Berman and Malkmus’s Marvin Gaye-tinged pop number “People” and the surreal “Honk if You’re Lonely” only further prove the point.


Water would be the last Silver Jews album to have Malkmus at the forefront alongside Berman (though Malkmus would continue to occasionally assist Berman), with everything that followed it utilizing the blueprint Berman sketched out on his first Malkmus-free piece, Water’s predecessor The Natural Bridge. The Natural Bridge unfortunately suffers from its placement between Starlite and Water in the Silver Jews’ canon, Berman coming off as aimless and unfocused without Malkmus to offer snippets of snark and chaos. But the sparse, intimate playing style would be better developed by Berman several years later with Bright Flight, his first recording with now-wife Cassie. On Bright Flight, Berman’s singing had become more confident, his writing more capable of utilizing his strengths and working around his weaknesses. When Berman sings on “Slow Education” that “when God was young/ He made the wind/ And the sun/ And since then/ It’s been a slow education,” it’s his deeply tragic voice that drives the line home, making you wonder if this is the voice of someone who was there to witness God’s youth, someone who has been watching humanity fail since its origins. Where Bright Eyes may fail precisely because Conor Oberst’s cocky, youthful vocals betray the emotions he attempts to convey with his lyrics, Berman has a voice that no one would dare call beautiful, but is instead truthful, hurt, aching. Berman also experiments with more complex harmonies and melodies on Bright Flight, using Cassie’s natural talents to smooth out his own rough edges. On “Tennessee” the Bermans document their romance and the troubles it helps them overcome, with David pleading with Cassie to move with him.” “Tennessee” essentially ends on a cliffhanger and it took Berman four years to write the sequel with Tanglewood Numbers, which builds on the bittersweet melodies and the contrast between David’s coarse, rugged vocals and Cassie’s silky delivery.

This profound hurt and deeply rooted sense of tragedy within the music of the Silver Jews also offers an explanation for their actions and decisions. The group was notorious for Berman’s refusal to tour, and it wasn’t until 2005’s post-suicide attempt Tanglewood Numbers that Berman broke this tradition, seemingly looking towards the road as an escape from the ingredients that led to his near death. Tanglewood Numbers would arguably also be the first work of Berman’s with any optimism, a sentiment which divided some fans and critics, who argued that Berman’s work suffered when he wasn’t suffering. But three years after its release, Tanglewood Numbers stands as Berman’s most accomplished work, and the piece that holds the rest of the puzzle together, allowing his prior albums to come together seamlessly, offering an explanation for what he was trying to say and do all along. Berman proves that somewhere in the four year hiatus between albums he gained the ability to make fun of himself, such as on the whimsical suicide pondering “Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed.” Tanglewood also sheds the ego-stroking instrumentals that plagued some of the earlier albums, instead featuring prominent instrumental passages within each of the songs, whether the post-punk stabs of guitar on “Punks in the Beerlight” or the Grateful Dead-referencing bridges of “The Farmer’s Hotel.” Possibly as a result of the influence of Cassie, many of Tanglewood’s tracks have inventive synth lines at the front of the mix, a first for the Silver Jews; coupled with Cassie’s vocals, the synth parts hinted at the notion of the Silver Jews transforming into a pop band on the level of the Magnetic Fields, albeit one fronted by an alcoholic, suicidal poet (see “How Can I Love You if You Won’t Lie Down” for the clearest example of this).

Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea was recorded after the first major tour the band ever embarked upon, documented in the film Silver Jew which focused on the Israeli leg of the trip. Both the film Silver Jew and Lookout indicated that the Silver Jews were moving in a direction Berman probably never imagined they’d go: world tours, (relative) domestic bliss, and an increasingly palatable, pop-oriented stable of songs. Lookout starred a relatively happy Berman, but for many it was the first misstep in his catalog, lacking the seemingly effortless feel of his prior work. While it’s true that Lookout is a difficult work within the band’s canon, more than likely the result of Berman altering his writing style and for once developing his songs before going into the studio in the hopes of allowing for easier editing, Lookout held great potential. “What Is Not but Could Be If” and “Suffering Jukebox” sound like anthems meant for the stage, and “San Francisco B.C.” wouldn’t be out of place on American Water.

But maybe happiness was never meant to be a part of the Silver Jews’ repertoire. It’s clear that most critics feel this way, and Berman himself would say in his farewell address to fans that if he “continue[d] to record, [he] might accidentally write the answer song to ‘Shiny Happy People.” In his typical fashion, Berman has been vague about what the dissolution of the Silver Jews means for his career and it’s disappointing that the announcement comes so soon into the group’s reincarnation as an anthemic pop outfit. Perhaps the retirement of the Silver Jews moniker, a name that arguably meant nothing since the band was always essentially a David Berman solo project, is just a way for Berman to distance himself from his past and what he hopes to accomplish in the future. If it means that Berman is permanently removing himself from music, though, indie rock has just lost its poet laureate.

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