Acclaimed poet and unofficial lyrical laureate of the indie rock community, David Berman has died.
Best known as the enigmatic founder and sole constant of the band, Silver Jews, Berman formed the continually country-leaning, folkish outfit back in 1989, alongside a pre-Pavement Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovic. Berman would go on to release six records as Silver Jews, each time employing a new cast of characters to back his lyrical journeys.
With a rotating roster, the band’s sound may have wavered over time, but there was never any doubt that it was Berman’s lyrical prowess that defined the project. Humorous and scholarly, Berman’s wit, cynicism, irony, and sarcasm continually proved that even in his music, he was a poet at heart.
David Berman knew the weight of the word, and with a poet’s mentality, he maintained a discerning diction that was essential to his unique style of storytelling. Like many out there who view the world through special lenses, Berman had his demons, and those demons often became his muse. But no matter how dark Berman’s subject matter, he always found a way to lighten the emotional load through his unique perspective of the common struggle. His yarns have been spun into parables, riddles, and even the occasional fairy tale, but deep down each song is a strategic and creative transmission of universal truths.
When I interviewed David back in 2008, he described his life in words by citing his distinction between the two mediums:
Poetry travels farther, but it’s lonelier. Songwriting is done within parameters. Songwriting is Folk Art. Poetry is Castle Art. Music is about sublime feelings and intuition. Poetry is freedom in language and thought. I love them both, but I am a child of the Enlightenment and not a rational lad. I prefer writing music—a medium through which I can communicate with my peers—over writing poetry that tries to monologue with history in an echo chamber.
Despite nearly two decades as a band, Berman and company rarely took their show on the road. You were more likely to see Berman give a poetry reading than headline a rock show. And we did. It wasn’t until the release of Silver Jew’s swansong, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea that he brought the band on their first world tour.
In 2009, as the tour concluded, Berman dissolved the Silver Jews, eventually explaining that he would seek to right the wrongs of his estranged father, Richard Berman, a powerful lobbyist for alcohol and tobacco.
Berman resurfaced this year, releasing a stellar eponymous album under his new moniker, Purple Mountains. While the album seemed to be especially autobiographical and the culmination of a seemingly depressing couple of years, the resulting record was as poignant as ever, and still contained that signature sardonic wit that always brought an intelligent sense of humor to those tough times.
In ‘That’s Just the Way I Feel’, the leadoff track on the Purple Mountains release, he muses:
You see, the life I live is sickening/I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion/Day to day, I’m neck and neck with giving in/ I’m the same old wreck I’ve always been.
It’s heady stuff from a heavy heart, but the wordplay seemed to signal some sort of peace with the pain. Now it just seems like a warning.
I was supposed to interview David Berman this week. In fact, I emailed my questions to his record label, Drag City, the day before the news broke. Looking back at the questions, it now seems far too bold and especially cryptic that I ask Berman for advice during tough times. Or if he felt vulnerable releasing an album that is so transparent in its transmission of troubles.
But on the other hand, at least at the time, it seemed to me that the very act of releasing this record was its own light at the end of the tunnel. It seemed like a communiqué for the sake of catharsis and an attempt to express the universality of the struggle and the need to press on. Who better to ask those questions to?
It seems unlikely that someone could release this document to the world, with an extensive tour to follow, if they weren’t already on their way to writing the next chapter? Who could write a song about their separated wife going out with another man with an accompanying music video staring them and said wife, if there wasn’t some sort of healing that had already happened? Despite the inherent darkness, his apt and witty stories seemed too well-versed and well-rehearsed to seem like a cry for help. Instead, the record seemed to pick up where the others left off—another distinctive chapter in his life was set to music for all to enjoy.
Back in 2008, in that same interview previously mentioned, I asked Berman if each of his records reflected distinctive periods in his own life. He offered up the following response:
Maybe. But I wouldn’t give them to my shrink for homework and say, ‘Hey here’s a way to get to know me and gather some insight into my deal.’ It would be more like handwriting analysis than reading a diary. There are six of them. Which of the Brady children am I supposed to not love? But seriously, I think I’ll make two more records. Eight is enough, right?
David Berman’s recent release Purple Mountains is out now. It was his seventh record. We miss you, Mr. Berman.