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David Berman: An Evolution in 11 Songs

SPAIN - MAY 31: PRIMAVERA SOUND Photo of SILVER JEWS and David BERMAN, David Berman performing on stage (Photo by Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns)

David Berman 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. The following list is an attempt to trace the evolution of his artistry, from the gnarly grind of his early Silver Jews recordings like Dime Map of the Reef and The Arizona Record through to this year’s haunting swan song as Purple Mountains.

Silver Jews, “Walnut Falcon” (Dime Map of the Reef EP, 1992)

At the very beginning, David Berman, Stephen Malkmus, and Bob Nastanovich played like three stoned seekers fumbling towards no-fi songcraft. Like Golden Age rappers, Berman and Malkmus routinely shared or passed a microphone, their mumbles intersecting cozily. Sometimes this meandering manifested as exuberant, barely disciplined noise. A case in point might be “September 1999”; but its fellow Dime Map of the Reef cut “Walnut Falcon” is marginally more coherent, with three (!) semi-simpatico vocal streams overlapping over a few brackish guitar chords. If Berman’s first couplet doubles as this song’s sole transcribable gem, perhaps it was less a sign of who he was than who he was becoming: “On a snowy mountaintop, two rams go head-to-head/The horns go thwop, the horns go thwop.”

Silver Jews, “You Can’t Trust It to Remain” (The Arizona Record EP, 1993)

Singing-wise this is a bit of a babbling brook. Was Berman scatting out a guide vocal that graduated prematurely to final version? A random tape edit early on underscores the general choppiness. Yet Berman and the band leaven the rough-hewn inscrutability of “You Can’t Trust It To Remain” with a newfound confidence at every level: the hooks are rock solid, the singer has some sentiment he’s tacitly urgent to impart, the production’s slightly clearer now. Perhaps a longer, more epic version of this tune exists somewhere; maybe the title’s an inside joke.

Silver Jews, “Introduction II” (Starlite Walker, 1994)

Berman’s droll era (and Silver Jews’ debut full-length Starlite Walker itself) kicks off right here: a minute-long duet with Malkmus, featuring companionably strummed guitars, welcoming us in from the elements. This is Southern hospitality at its most succinct. Four years later they’d boomerang back on this idea with the louche eye-roll “People” from American Water.

Silver Jews, “Advice to the Graduate” (Starlite Walker, 1994)

A half-decade before “Wear Sunscreen” emerged as a proto-meme and a half-decade and change before Malkmus went solo and turned avuncularly prescriptive, Berman sat everyone down for a little talk about life. His chestnuts included “On the last day of your life, don’t forget to die” and “Your third drink will lead you astray.” “Advice to the Graduate” was startlingly focused, coherent, and sober, with a sense of purpose suggesting that the Silver Jews were getting serious about this whole music career thing.

Silver Jews, “How to Rent a Room” (The Natural Bridge, 1996)

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 dolor 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.

Silver Jews, “Random Rules” (American Water, 1998)

This fan-favorite number from fan-favorite 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.”

Silver Jews, “Horseleg Swastikas” (Bright Flight, 2001)

“Horseleg Swastikas”, a ballad from the underrated Bright Flight, is almost excruciating to hear; this song is so plainly about and intended to mirror the experience of suffering a brutal hangover that it’s possible to take on some feedback agony of your own. It’s also a treatise on loneliness and (arguably the illusion of) personal failure, an extra-empathic Berman downer on an LP chock full of them. And for all his prodigious collagist’s gifts, the finest imagery here might be the most mundane: “I can tell you things about this wallpaper/That you’d never, ever wanna know”.

Silver Jews, “The Poor, The Fair, and The Good” (Tanglewood Numbers, 2005)

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.

Silver Jews, “Open Field” (Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, 2008)

“Open Field,” by the Japanese band Maher Shalal Hash Baz (heard here in Peel Session form), is a wispy piece of bossa nova hippie folk, more ramshackle mantra than song. Fifteen years before covering it, the Silver Jews ground out a shambolic live version of The Rolling Stones’ scabrous “Cocksucker Blues”; the difference between that and their beatific, generous, jangly “Open Field” rendition is night and day. With apologies to the screwball pulp fiction of “San Francisco, B.C.”, this is the corner of Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea that I most want to live in: meditative, almost joyous.

The Avalanches, “Saturday Night Inside Out” (ft. Father John Misty and David Berman) (Wildflower, 2016)

A decade elapsed between the end of Silver Jews and the dawn of Purple Mountains. During that period of blogging, teaching, screenwriting, and music producing, Berman struck up a friendship with Australian pop collagists the Avalanches, and appeared on their sprawling, Quaalude-spiked track “Saturday Night Inside Out.” Low key and free-associative, this is the bard at play, flipping images as mildly psychedelic as the accompanying sonics. If only he’d done more of this freelance skylarking.

Purple Mountains, “Snow Is Falling In Manhattan” (Purple Mountains, 2019)

Berman had penned great third-person story songs before: think “Ballad of Reverend War Character” from The Natural Bridge, “I Remember Me” from Bright Flight, “The Farmer’s Hotel” from Tanglewood Numbers. Yet these tunes bore a strong whiff of allegory, oblique fables that felt representative of their author’s creative and personal struggles. (“The Frontier Index,” as dreamy a montage as it was and remains, is essentially a deathless bouquet of non-sequiturs.) “Snow Is Falling In Manhattan,” recorded for Purple Mountains with Woods members and affiliates, exists on a higher plain. Gospel-tinged and waltz-paced, the song finds Berman narrating almost beyond himself, painting a wintry, pastoral scene of magic, of phantoms, of doors opening wide to welcome travelers in. But is he the “I” idling with a smile in that final verse? Are his songs the warm safe havens where we can take refuge from the world’s unrelenting chill? It’s nice to believe that the answer to both questions is yes.