The Silver Jews are one of the greatest indie bands of all time, and the late David Berman is arguably the first songwriter to emerge from the 1990s. Here we go; I said it. Somebody had to do it. Sober solemnity and self-appreciation are factors that all too often affect our judgment when it comes to the deeds we choose to praise as legends, but it’s a status that Silver Jews never seemed to care. . For them, solemnity was always best skewered with a laissez-faire laugh, and self-appreciation was reserved for the one pasta sauce a month you inexplicably nail down after a string of dismal failures.
Helmed by Berman, he welcomed his Pavement pals Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich to the group to shake things up. Outside of their jams, Berman worked as a security guard at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where he foiled the master criminal’s attempts to infiltrate him, mostly by scribbling his lyrical thoughts on a notepad and marveling of the contents of the mausoleum. This closeness to concept art underpinned the sound of their early scratchy, demo-like tracks.
However, over time, the conceptual element of the music would give way to something more melodious that matched Berman’s meter of dreamy poetry. And it was poetry indeed – for every individualistic line that misses the mark in remarkable comedic fashion, there are nuggets of wit more wondrous than Whitman and enough personality to make it onto a Steve Martin debut album.
Below, we’ve curated the rise of this great group and offered fans new and old alike the chance to pass on the brilliance of the Silver Jews right from the start. They’re not the easiest group to start with – not everyone will like them. In fact, no one is satisfied with “loving”; either you love them or you’ve never heard of them, and maybe they haven’t fully clicked for a few people yet. So it’s not easy to narrow them down to six titles, but if this introductory guide only welcomes one new fan to the outside world of Silver Jews, then my time has been well spent.
The Six Definitive Silver Jew Songs:
“Trains Across the Sea”
When news of Berman’s suicide broke in 2019, his friend and fellow songwriting virtuoso Bill Callahan wrote, “The world is and always will be a David Berman lyric.” If so, please let it be the words about the stars that are the beacons of the angels on their way to save us. Because, in truth, that’s Berman’s brilliance – his vulnerability snuffed through art with such comforting humanity that amid all the sardonic remarks and sidelong glances, there are feelings of spiritual wonder that would have made him blush at a straight face.
The song “Trains Across the Sea” is taken from Silver Jews’ 1994 debut album Stellar walker. As the second track on the album, it wonderfully heralds the mix of wry wit and cutting wisdom that would flourish in the rest of their catalog, as Berman sings, “Half-hours on Earth, what are they ? I don’t know / In 27 years I’ve drunk 50,000 beers / And they come to wash against me, like the sea in a pier. With gems like that in this anthem, it’s no surprise that Callahan chose to cover this song in honor of his dear late friend. It is surely one of the most beautiful lyrics that has ever been associated with such a fluid melody.
American writer, the band’s third album from 1998, was when many first noticed Silver Jews. The outfit seemed more assured in their work, with memoir-like tales in the mix and a more structured touch in the songs. ‘Random Rules’ is the epitome of this. Beginning with a classic Berman opening line, the anthem rumbles through tan lines on the ring fingers and bursts of filigree guitar work, amounting to something close to a defining anthem for the band and all. the sincerity that accompanies self-encapsulation.
In an age steeped in grunge, silver Jews refused to succumb to fads and wandered around, shaking hands with their muse. Sure, there’s a scrape to the sound, but there’s no taste for pain or deliberate dissonance. There is, in short, a sense that we are all resigned to difficulties, but an overriding sense of finding the beauty in things. ‘Random Rules’ is another opus wrought with mature life experience. Like all the best pieces of Silver Jews, it feels lived in.
“I’m going to love you in hell”
There’s a nice drunkenness to a lot of Silver Jews tunes. Their music has this slight hungover feeling of being beyond the world. If you want a liberated fuck-it-ness, excuse the French. And it’s in full force in the Swedish bookstore tale “I’ll Love You in Hell.”
Once again, this is a narrative tale with enough flourishes to make it seem like it really happened, if not to Berman, then to someone out there among the wild roses. Stumbling on the broken heel of an errant riff, the steady bass line is a rhythmic handrail that keeps things in line, tucking them in easily.
‘Punks at Beerlight’
Let’s not forget the music here too. While Berman’s lyrics deservedly take center stage (as this piece has continually blared), he was also able to bend his buddies into a crescendo riff that kicks like a mule getting ready for the UFC pastoral division title. This is as close as the band gets to a total, loose frenzy.
Brimming with energy, it’s indicative of how the band saw music as a way to salvation. It’s impossible to reach the final guitar duel of this punky anthem and be backed by a chant of “I love you to the fullest,” without feeling a thrill of joy. Now, with Cassie Berman in the mix, there’s more of a unified feel and marital boon to songs filled with happiness.
‘San Francisco B.C.’
This loquacious comedy about new wave haircuts and lovers who lose sight of the “things we quote ‘believe'” is a Bonnie and Clyde rework in miniature. Bursting with detail and great rhyming couplets like the punchlines that unfold on this verse: “Gene took off his hat and I noticed his hair / It was neatly cut, but a patch was bare / I knew it wasn’t not new wave, it was human error,” it’s an epic exposé of acerbic wit riding the quirks of a truly rhythmic song.
In a tale where “the cops couldn’t catch a bus” and the kids sport “sarcastic haircuts,” there’s a strange sense of heart and sincerity. Like the Coen brothers, the absurdity of this heinous folly seems to reflect the larger human comedy that continually perpetuates itself through the unbroken trickle of minor tragedies. It’s a story of fools ordering their own unhappy endings, as it’s always been the case in San Francisco and every metropolis since BC and maybe before.
“We could be looking for the same thing”
This is the second song from Lookout Mountain, Lookout Seaand while “How to Rent a Room” and “Pretty Eyes” deserve apologies, I make no apologies for dubbing the masterpiece. Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is somehow both gruff and melodious like the sound of sandpaper on silk, and the poetry that underpins it all takes you to a sense of earthly wonder in the blink of an eye. From start to finish, Berman crafts perfectly realized bargains that transfigure perfectly realized reality with a bonanza of sing-song musical laments and love letters.
Perhaps as close to pop as they’ve ever been, Silver Jews’ latest song is perhaps the best place to start with them. The song’s message is endlessly elevated by the fact that it’s sung as a duo, proving that they’ve always known how to match music to poetry in an illuminating way. And the music this time is genuinely beautiful. It is a humble artistic virtue that has often been underestimated.
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