Freedom from Ickiness with David Berman

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David Berman, the singer, songwriter, and creative force behind the band Silver Jews, is not only a musician but also a respected poet. In 1999, he published a book of poems, Actual Air, that was cooed over by the New Yorker and GQ and praised by Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet James Tate and former poet laureate Billy Collins. Berman is also an accomplished cartoonist whose drawings recently appeared at a gallery event organized by Dave Eggers in New York.

It’s Berman’s musical application of his literary talents, however, that are the wellspring of his success. His Silver Jews have been a going concern since the early nineties, and they’ve released a string of albums known primarily among critics for their lyrics, which tend to be funny, clever and genuinely, oddly beautiful. A quick sampler:

I had a friend, his name was Marc, with a “c.”
His sister was like the heat coming off the back of an old TV.
     –“Sleeping Is the Only Love,” from Tanglewood Numbers

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,” from American Water

The latest Silver Jews album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, which is due out from Drag City in June, is no exception to the rule of quality Berman has established. His lyrics are poetry in a cracked, catchy, alt-country frame.

And yet the songs seem a little more straightforward this time around, less cryptic and more baldly emotional than on previous albums. Berman has spent the last few years sober, after what sounds like the proverbial drug-fueled haze. So is his work sobering up too? Utne Reader tried to answer this and other questions in a recent chat with the Silver Jews frontman.

“I’m in, let’s say, this business, and I have competitors. Instead of profit, what I’m seeking is influence,” Berman says, his voice markedly less rumbling than his Johnny-Cash-like singing voice would indicate.

For a statement of purpose, this seeking is sober enough, to be sure. As an artist, Berman seems determined to ensure the originality of the content he generates, or, if you prefer, the awesomeness of his lyrics. And when he sings (on Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea‘s jaunty “Party Barge”), “Satan’s jeweled lobster has your wife in its claws,” it’s not just uniquely absurd and goofily surreal. It’s serious. The eponymous, barging-in character who sings the song is a party animal turned to 11. His demons, therefore, might be reasonably expected to take bizarre, extravagant shapes. Or maybe he’s the jeweled lobster. After all, Berman makes no disguise of the fact that he himself played the role of “party barge” for a number of years.

Then again, the Silver Jews aren’t simply a stage for autobiographical metaphors. In a world and contemporary music scene where musicians routinely dismiss their own lyrics by saying, “I don’t know what they mean,” David Berman’s current vision of his music rests solely on the idea that he’s offering intellectual objects in the form of country rock songs.

“I think people have taken advantage of the evolution in language toward postmodern pastiche and non-sequitur,” Berman offers. “People who want to be a songwriter or lead singer, but don’t have anything to say, are provided with this sort of loophole in the culture.”

Now, of course, this sounds pretentious. And it probably is–in the past, Berman himself has indulged in oblique, significant-sounding nonsense. But in an indie culture that worships the idea of music as Art, Berman’s take–and the poetry involved in his songs–seems normal, even expected. Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea was made with more than a touch of the tortured artist’s attention to detail, a fact that becomes apparent when you talk to the guy who agonized over it.

For instance, Berman proposes that the album is the most “Googly-sure” of any album–ever. What this means is that he took the time to Google such phrases as “abridged abyss,” in order to find out if they were solely his creations. No hits returned? It’s his; flag planted. A Google search now turns up 44 hits for the phrase “abridged abyss,” and the first page of results shows either Silver Jews’ lyrics or references to a Yale French Studies article on André Malraux. The Malraux reference, which Berman says he found, was sufficiently lonely and obscure that the lyric remains fixed in Lookout Mountain‘s leadoff track, “What Is Not But Could Be If.”

All the album’s tracks underwent this kind of surgical construction. Using colored note-cards to write them, Berman set out to wade through “50, 60, 70 chord progressions” and numerous books he was reading at the time. “There’s an Emerson quote at the end of ‘Strange Victory, Strange Defeat,'” he points out, and “Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer” samples Emily Dickinson.

Perhaps this makes it sound as though the songs on Lookout Mountain exercise a literary posture. But they certainly don’t scan that way. Cheeky fun is one of the first phrases that comes to mind when I think of them. A Google search, by the way, yields 21,400 hits for cheeky fun, so it’s not any stretch of the critical vocabulary. Lookout Mountain is just a good album, with a couple great songs. It won’t raise the dead, at least not for long, but how often does that happen?

“If someone buys a Silver Jews record, they get to buy some freedom from the ickiness,” Berman hopes. The craft and thought he’s put into the album probably merits the description. Berman is, after all, a lauded poet, though he says that he has “less of a claim to originality [in poetry] than I do in, for instance, lyric-writing.” In lyric-writing, actually, Berman feels “like I could be in the Olympic finals; I could be in ninth place.”

Still, he says, his music “flies under their [listeners’] standards; the music and the singing is not technically adept.” For this reason, he feels that the context for his career is very important. As a poet, artist, and musician, his multiple-hat-wearing “sticks him out,” gives him an outsider-ish edge. Which is in some ways bullshit. This is a guy who, as a writer, critics compare favorably to Bob Dylan.  

But it works for him. Feeling he’s on the aesthetic outskirts motivates him to feel justified in continuing to make albums. In some ways, the contradictory conceit of indie rock culture–idiosyncracy and the pretense of art all wrapped up as a not-quite-commodity–is realized perfectly in Berman’s approach. He says he’s not lauded, but he’s garnered considerable acclaim. Moreover, his music sounds and plays itself off as both friendly and accessible; the absurdity and weird braininess are just along for the ride.

Really this is the dream of rock and roll, since it first scandalously waggled off of Elvis’ hips or whatever: The fringe product as a rock in the mainstream. Then again, just because it’s fallen through the cracks of the industry machine doesn’t mean it didn’t roll off the conveyor belt. Pop music is pop music, right? Silver Jews melodies have straight-up hooks aplenty; the poetry involved looks more like a bonus.

But do these distinctions matter? David Berman is a serious craftsman, and seems intent on taking up the mantle of the struggling artist. And the mantle might fit: Berman certainly isn’t rich, and he was, at one time, a genuine “party barge” (he probably still has the tugboat marks to prove it). Similarly, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea has its moments of earnest, downtrodden poetry, but Berman certifies his tone with life-giving variety. He’s funny when laughter is a little relief from the model-parade of hard times.     

The Silver Jews’ last record, Tanglewood Numbers, also explored the new world of sobriety. So Lookout Mountain may be more a refinement than a definition of Berman as a recovered sage. Nevertheless, he uses his addled wisdom as a launching pad for little poetic rocket ships (on fighting: “He came at me with some fist cuisine”; on divorce: “Living in a little town with my pedigree in shards,”). And, as Berman takes pains to point out, the language is plainer on this album. He has stories to tell and ideas to convey.

In the end, it may be a little stupid to emphasize Berman’s multidisciplinary career. The guy is a writer. And maybe he can’t sing, but I love it when he does.  

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