From Silver Jews to Purple Mountains: 14 of David Berman’s Best Songs | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, December 4th, 2022  

From Silver Jews to Purple Mountains: 14 of David Berman’s Best Songs

May 20, 2022
Bookmark and Share


For a select few of us who can claim to be bona fide hometown fans of the NFL’s Houston Oilers circa the 1980s into the early ’90s, there is a certain level of gluttony for punishment that goes along with that honor. Added to the indignities of many playoff appearances that never quite panned fully out, the team’s owner, Bud Adams, unceremoniously up and moved the team to Nashville, Tennessee. After a year or two operating as the Tennessee Oilers (up there with the Utah Jazz in terms of city/mascot disconnects), the team’s name changed to the Tennessee Titans with the team’s flagship player, and one of the Houston holdovers, being quarterback Steve McNair.

You may be asking what this has to do with David Berman and his musical projects, Silver Jews and Purple Mountains. But as reclusive as an artist as Berman was, including his 10-year disappearance from making music, Berman was clear in idolizing the Titans and McNair. I first became aware of Berman early on as a fan of Pavement and no doubt purchased Silver Jews’ debut album, Starlite Walker, due to Steven Malkmus’ and Bob Nastanovich’s involvement with the project. Berman’s hangdog tales were laced with pure poetry, an alt-country lean, and a laconic, lo-fi delivery that spoke to listeners in a language they didn’t know they needed to hear.

Over the course of six Silver Jews albums and the unexpected 2019 comeback via his Purple Mountains debut, Berman never disappointed. I didn’t get the opportunity to see Berman perform live, although I had tickets to a Houston show in 2008 that I was unable to travel to due to Hurricane Ike blasting through the area. Amazingly, the show did go on at the last minute at an alternate location. After Berman’s Purple Mountains reemergence, I was pressing my son to go see the planned set at Raleigh’s Hopscotch Festival (Purple Mountains, Orville Peck, Faye Webster, and Jenny Lewis were to all play that day), but Berman took his life a few days before the Purple Mountains tour was to begin.

It was almost too much to fathom that Berman could find his way back through the fog, only to be gone a few months later. Though his loss is certainly more devastating than the relocation of a favorite sports team, being shown another taste of Berman’s talents so soon before he was gone for good did leave a feeling of having been cheated out of something cherished in addition to the grief many of us who love his music felt. He also garnered the message “Nashville (and the world) will always love David Berman” on the Titan’s Jumbotron as a posthumous salute.

Fortunately, we have the legacy of Berman’s music and words, including his parting gift to us just before his passing. Here I pick 14 of my favorite Berman songs. To borrow from the Jews’ “Random Rules,” in order to be “democratic and cool,” I picked two songs apiece from each of the albums and tried to include a taste of the different approaches that Berman brought to the table—from the purely whimsical to the deeply felt. So if your favorites aren’t here, they may have well been nudged out by other songs on the same album or in favor of a different example of Berman’s talents. By Mark Moody

14

“Party Barge”

Johnny Cash may have taught the weeping willow how to cry, but Berman chopped it down to build his party barge. Up there with the best of them in writing a hook filled and seemingly throwaway song, “Party Barge” (from the 2008 Silver Jews album Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea) ranks with his finest. “Honk If You’re Lonely” and this same album’s “Candy Jail,” are other solid picks, but the rolling rhythm and Cassie Berman’s rescue squad lead make this one a winner. It also contains one of Berman’s most ingenious and ponderable lines: “things get kind of squirrelly when you’re sleeping in the park.” If DJ’s reached for “Party Barge” instead of Little Big Town’s “Pontoon,” the world would be a better place.

13

“Dallas”

City songs that more than scratch the surface of a place are ones to cherish. Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s same named country song initially views “Big D” from the window of an airplane, but Berman gets to the nitty gritty of “cruising down Commerce,” into the underbelly of the city. “How did a billion steers, turn into buildings made of mirrors?” is an on point observation that more than evokes an image.

12

“Advice to the Graduate”

Coming from the Silver Jews’ debut album, Starlite Walker, “Advice to the Graduate” showcases Berman and Malkmus working together as well as anything in the Jews’ catalog. There are other songs that are more Malkmus/Pavement-centric, but here we get a balanced mix. Never one to shy from the dark side of things, we also get the most pithy of lines in the Berman catalog early on in his career: “On the last day of your life, don’t forget to die.”

11

“Snow is Falling in Manhattan”

Good luck finding a Berman song that plays it straight from start to finish, but we get a beautiful one here. Appearing on the sole Purple Mountains album, Berman takes the listener into a cozy Brooklyn brownstone as the drifts pile up outside. With horns and vibraphone and Anna St. Louis’ backing vocals, the song sounds an outtake from Lambchop’s Is a Woman album and is fully realized as a result. We also get one of Berman’s slyest and deeply deferred rhymes here: “Snow is falling in Manhattan…. Salt the stoop and scoop the cat in.”

10

“Let’s Not and Say We Did”

One of the brighter moments off of the low key Bright Flight, “Let’s Not and Say We Did,” takes us from the prior song’s urban environment to the appeal of chucking it all away to escape to the pastoral. The song’s barrelhouse piano, courtesy of Tony Crow (Lambchop, Bonnie “Prince” Billy), makes disappearing to the country seem like the most reasonable thing in the world.

9

“How to Rent a Room”

Never one to bury the lede, seven of the remaining songs here are either the first or second song on their respective albums. “How to Rent a Room” leads off 1996’s Natural Bridge and rumor has it the lyrics are likely directed at Berman’s estranged father for which he held a lifelong disdain. Regardless, it’s just a wonderfully composed loper of a song and sets its mood perfectly, tell off or not.

8

“K-Hole”

One of Berman’s darkest and most psychedelically tinged songs, “K-Hole” takes us to the depths of despair. It’s an honest and open look into depression and the efforts to battle it. And the occasional shift of phase mimics the out of body experience of too heavy a dose of the drug that inspired the song. The closing line, “Better get inside the kingdom and close the door,” is one Berman’s most abjectly lonely ones.

7

“San Francisco B.C.”

Not surprisingly, Berman is a master of the story song. Others include “Farmer’s Hotel,” “I Remember Me,” and maybe to a lesser extent “Smith & Jones Forever,” but here we get Berman at his narrative and zany best. Even a mid-song series of yelps feels pulled from a Three Stooges’ bit. The over six-minute caper song comes complete with arms smugglers and plenty of bad haircuts. The narrative tangle of the action scene towards the end of song is one of Berman’s finest lyrical moments: “He came at me with some fist cuisine/I had to duck aside and that was bad for Gene/‘Cause when he went by me he tripped and fell/Through the glass coffee table at the Wong Hotel.”

6

“Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed”

A two-and-a-half-minute blast of Berman’s most engaged moment on tape. He’s downright aggressive in tearing off the end lines of the choruses and puts forth all manner of observation for us earthbound humans and horses. He contrasts this with: “Happiness won’t leave me alone, says the bird in his nest/Get a load of this fuckin’ view, it’s the best in the West.” A ripper of minute proportions. Considering the couplet “Bandits in the capital/Limited civilian unrest,” there is always a time relevant Berman quote for any moment.

5

“Slow Education”

In putting together any list like this, you are bound to come across a new found favorite and “Slow Education” easily takes that cake. It has the loveliest of harmonies with Cassie of any of the Jews’ catalog and is wrapped up in an even prettier country melody. The opening lines set the deepest of hooks: “When God was young/He made the wind and the sun/And since then, it’s been a slow education.” The line rings true today as ever and the simple chorus of “oh, oh, oh I’m lightning, oh, oh, oh, I’m rain,” is classically timeless itself.

4

“Smith & Jones Forever”

Two misfit characters, their “mustaches caked with airplane glue,” that are nonetheless inseparable. The song feels a piece of the earliest songs from Starlite Walker, but more fully developed and with an incessant pulse of purpose. If Silver Jews have a fists in the air, sing-a-long song, “Smith & Jones” would be the one and it was the last song the group ever played live.

3

“That’s Just the Way That I Feel”

The leadoff track from Berman’s Purple Mountains’ return is a devastating one, filled with heaps of humor and plenty of pathos. It’s the first of Berman’s voice we’d heard in a decade and it starts with no accompaniment. When the backing from New York’s Woods kicks in, you know that Berman is in good and sympathetic hands. A percolating romp that keeps feeding you snippets of Berman’s “decade flirting with oblivion” and filled with one classic line after another: “I tried to drown my thoughts in gin/I found my worst ideas know how to swim,” being one of the most pointed.

2

“Trains Across the Sea”

Setting aside Starlite Walker’s brief intro track, “Trains Across the Sea,” was our first introduction to the wonders that were yet to come from Berman. “In 27 years, I’ve drank 50,000 beers, and they just wash against me like the sea into a pier,” encapsulates the promise of what Berman would continue to offer up as time rolled on. The song also has the “first thing I heard from them” edge of a warm nostalgia every time those opening notes hit and as it rambles on from there.

1

“Random Rules”

Perhaps not a surprise that the opening track off of the loaded American Water is the top pick here. From a technical perspective, it’s the most composed of Berman’s works with the Jews, with a bridge and a horn arrangement. It contains, likely his most well known line as well: “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection,” and goes on to make for a perfectly circled song of cheating and heartbreak. And contrasting the seemingly orderly process of a line dance to the chaos of the world is a neat trick in and of itself. Berman’s best-loved song and rightfully so.

Comments

Submit your comment

Name Required

Email Required, will not be published

URL

Remember my personal information
Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

There are no comments for this entry yet.