About 10 years ago I bought The Arizona Record by the Silver Jews because it listed R. Nastanovich (Bob Nastanovich, the percussionist for Pavement) as one of the members, along with D.C. Berman and Hazel Figurine. At the time I was hot for anything remotely Pavement-related, and was later elated when I figured out that guitarist Hazel Figurine was really Steve Malkmus. The record itself sounded more or less like a folkier Pavement, with Malkmus singing backing vocals and some lead vocals on every song. It wasn’t easy listening; it sounded as if they’d sat a boom box down in the room and pressed record before launching into each song—which is exactly what they did.
I bought every subsequent Silver Jews album, and as I began to see them less as a Pavement side project and more as songwriter and poet David Berman’s band, I grew enamored with Berman’s slightly Southern-inflected and often talky delivery of simultaenously vague and vivid places, people, and psychological states. What really kept me coming back to Berman’s songs was the persistent theme of loneliness that inhabited them. The characters in Berman’s songs always seemed to find themselves stuck alone in bleak hotel rooms, dive bars, garish cities, and sometimes, the songs themselves.
Take “New Orleans” from Starlite Walker where Berman and Malkmus howl together that they’re “trapped inside this song where the nights are so long” until it morphs into “there’s traps inside us all and the knifes are so tall”. Then, on The Natural Bridge, Berman sings of being stuck “inside the golden days of missing you, with the people of Cleveland who’ve suffered for so many years”. On American Water‘s “We Are Real” he sings “My ski vest has buttons like convenience store mirrors and they help me see, that everything in this room right now is a part of me”. “Time Will Break the World”, from 2001’s Bright Flight, explains that “the icicles are dripping like the whole house is weeping.”
Now, on Tanglewood Numbers, the first Silver Jews album in four years, Berman has found perspective. “Like a brown bird nesting in a Texaco sign I’ve got a point of view,” he sings on “I’m Getting Back into Getting Back into You.”
The perspective was hard won. As Berman revealed recently, he tried to kill himself a couple of years ago with a combination of Xanax and crack. After his recovery and subsequent rehabilitation, he found solace in reading the Torah. Listening to Tanglewood Numbers, it doesn’t sound so much like Berman found God as he met Him head on. On the album’s stunning closer, “There Is a Place”, Berman chants:
“I saw God’s shadow on this world
I could not love the world entire
There grew a desert in my mind
I took a hammer to it all.”
Halfway into the album’s snarling second track, “Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed,” those who have been listening to Berman for the last ten years will know they are hearing a changed man; a man who has found a new measure of freedom. Freedom from rooms, cities, and songs; freedom to see things from a new angle. Freedom, it seems to at least some degree, from himself.
Berman recently answered some of my questions via e-mail. Below is our correspondence.
PopMatters: Which most satisfies you: 1) Putting your songs together in the studio, 2) playing guitar and singing on the porch or in your living room, or 3) having just finished a poem that you feel good about?
David Berman: One and three. I don’t take much pleasure in the activity of making music live, even around the house. Isn’t that terrible? I guess I’m obsessed with achievement. I wouldn’t sell me an important guitar.
PM: Tanglewood Numbers is what a lot of people would probably call a “departure”. More rockin’. Female backing vocals from your wife, Cassie. Why did it turn out that way?
DB: Bright Flight was supposed to be the departure. It says so right in the title. But this record, yes, it’s different. When I write songs now I’m able to use my intentions to steer. Before I kind of worked with the music that I’d received (out of luck or from the aether). I ‘ve barely written more than fifty songs, and I’ve always been slow to achieve control. I’d like to write 50 more with what I’ve figured out in the last year.
PM: Any news on when those early Silver Jews tapes of you, Steve Malkmus, and Bob Nastanovich improvising songs will be edited down, mastered, and released?
DB: There are three shoeboxes of tapes I need to go through for that record to happen. I’m kind of offended by bands that try to sell you their DVDs, unreleaseds, tour-onlies, remixes, etc. It’s kind of sad. I think a certain amount of reserve with regard to what you release is neccessary to avoid letting the listener degrade him or herself in their pursuit of trivia, irrespective to what it says about an artist’s confidence in his work to come.
PM: You’ve said that these days you are more open to the idea of “peddling” your music by performing live. Naturally, that excites your fan base because so few have seen the Silver Jews live. What, other than financial concerns, has brought about this change of heart?
DB: 1) I’m on a mission from G-d. 2) I’m not joking.
PM: In what ways did working with your wife Cassie on the album influence Tanglewood Numbers?
DB: It closed the loop as I was trying to make the music circumscribe my entire life. There are many real people that I love inside this record. I believe it was made with care for other lives and other situations, however congruent or not with my own.
PM: Now that you’ve managed to make a name for yourself as a legitimate poet, first with Actual Air, and now writing regularly for The Believer magazine, what advice would you give to other young poets trying to get published?
DB: It seems to me that poets have had the best of luck when they have grouped together. One voice may no longer be able to penentrate the media. Find some other people like you, or as close as you can get, who have high ambitions for their writing and make each other better.
PM: When will your next book of poetry be published?
DB: I’m not really planning that. I can only do one thing per year. Didn’t you want me to get started on that box of tapes?
PM: Your singing sounds more emotionally unhinged on the new album than on previous ones. Why?
DB: A late in life realization that acting was something I was permitted to do. And I think a more true to life represenation of my inner self was the result of filtering that same self through character, which surprised me. The fact that there were any surprises left surprised me. So I’m angled for more.
PM: In the insert for a Scud Mountain Boys CD you once wrote: “I’m renewing my vow to bear down on the truth even if there is none for the hundredth time.” Do you feel like over the years you’ve maintained that tenacity to “bear down on the truth”? Or have you found yourself becoming satisfied with what you’ve found (or not found) as you get older?
DB: As I was saying in the last answer, I am blown away to realize in my late 30s how wrong my old ideas about life and the works of life are. I’m blown away because I remember how it felt to believe those things were true.
PM: The Natural Bridge stands as my favorite Silver Jews album, not because I think it’s better than the rest, but because I happened to find it at a particularly difficult time in my life. Listening to that album was uplifting for me in a way that’s hard to explain: I guess I felt like I had someone to be sad with. And not Joy Division, sink-into-the-oblivion sad—but a more reconciled kind of sad. You’ve said that recording that record was a difficult time for you. I don’t really want to ask you to explain why, but I would be interested in reading any thoughts this circuitous “question” might have conjured, if you’re up to it.
DB: The joke about the kid and his dad was something I heard Randy Travis tell at a concert in an arena in Baltimore in ‘95. The title of “Golden Days of Missing You” is a perversion of some garbled talk I heard on Saturday Night Live that year. The first two lines of the second verse of the first song are lifted from a Sam Cooke song.