Clearer Vision: An interview With David Berman of the Silver Jews

Photo: Brent Stewart

The Silver Jews' David Berman recently underwent eye surgery that both physically and metaphorically extended his range of vision. He talks to PopMatters about being able to see farther in so many ways.

David Berman can see now, and that changes everything.

For years, the Silver Jews songwriter had been viewing the world as if through a soapy window, perceiving light and colors dimly, but no precise shapes. An eye injury had gone untreated, his vision gradually deteriorating. Then in January 2007, with health insurance finally, he was able to have a cornea transplant. "I couldn't believe it was so easy," he marveled. "That this woman at Vanderbilt was able to do this operation and take another person's lens and put it in my body."

That operation, which immediately restored his sight, had a profound impact, not just on Berman's health, but on his life and music."When you can't see you become very timid about space and moving," he said. "You become less aggressive and less tenacious. Lots of things that shouldn't be affected by vision really are. And you don't even know what they are until they become unstuck."

So, in its most literal terms, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, Berman's sixth album as Silver Jews, celebrates an ability to see farther and more accurately, while still maintaining a love for puzzle-palace complexity and multiple implications. The title alone references Berman's home state of Tennessee (Lookout Mountain is in Chattanooga), an old song by the Band, and an ominous sense of imminent world change, but most of all, the ability to take a longer view of the world. "I gave myself a mandate for clarity," said Berman.

Now 41 and a veteran of every kind of physical and spiritual struggle (his previous album Tanglewood Numbers marked a recovery from multiple substance addictions that nearly killed him), Berman said he has a different perspective from when he started out. "Of course, how could you, at 18, understand concepts like mutability and how sad it is that things pass?" he asked. "It's ridiculous. You haven't met anyone who's died yet."

That changes as you get older, obviously, and it has certainly changed for Berman. Indeed, one of the best songs on Lookout Mountain Lookout Sea is concerned with mortality -- and it is drawn very closely from life. "My Pillow Is a Threshhold" has a main character who wants desperately to dream about a lost loved one, who utters the arresting line, "What looks like sleep is really hot pursuit."

Berman explained that he started working on the song when Theresa Duncan, an artist and the wife of his friend, the visual artist Jeremy Blake, committed suicide. He even talked about the song with Blake during the week after she died, but then Blake killed himself shortly after.

"The original feeling of the song was, yeah, I just want to be asleep, so that I'm dreaming about this person. And there still is part of me that wishes I had written just the part about the longing," he said. "But after Jeremy died, the ending became more about him," said Berman. "In the last couple of months, I've looked at that song and it's clear that the person wants so badly to see the person that they're actually passing over. It's really a picture of suicide."

Photo: Cassie Berman

Veering out from the straightforward

Berman said that he often finds his songwriting process taking a sharp turn in this way, turning a relatively straightforward story into something bizarre and unexpected. "You're facing a choice about what people can handle or what kinds of risks you're prepared to take. Especially if you have a good piece of music and a good idea to go with it, there's a tendency to mimic the archtectonics of a really nice song. To do everything just straight down the line," he explained.

Yet Berman thinks that resisting that temptation is an integral part of his art. "I'm always switching back and forth between the everyday and the extraordinary and trying to interpolate them. I think it's my tendency to lean or to lean away or to push it if I'm not achieving a synthesis," he said. "The songs of mine that don't work, the ones that I wouldn't consider playing live for instance, fail to integrate their idiosyncracies. It's not that they fail because they're boring, but because they overreach."

"My Pillow Is a Threshhold" is sad and beautiful, but many of the songs on Lookout Mountain are giddy, surreal fun. "Definitely in everything I do, the comic is a part of it," Berman admitted, when asked about the rollicking "San Francisco BC". "In a lot of ways, I wouldn't be an artist in another time. I need to exist in a time where high and low art mix easily. It might have something to do with my relationship with the rest of humanity. Where there's comedy going on, there's usually some kind of critique happening."

Photo: Brent Stewart

Looking out ... toward momentous changes

Yet if it's comedy, it's a dark sort of humor, a kind of snickering as the lights dim and the wind starts howling, because Berman is not optimistic about the state of the world. His assessment of global geopolitics can be gleaned, in part, from the opening of "Strange Victory, Strange Defeat". He starts the song with a clip of Teddy Roosevelt speaking to a group of teenage boys during his Bull Moose Party run for the president in 1913. The speech was recorded about a year before World War I, and many of the boys in the audience would die in combat over the coming years. Roosevelt, speaking bluffly about patriotism and using sporting metaphors, sounds absurdly upbeat in retrospect. "Teddy Roosevelt, coming out of the Spanish American War, he never knew and would never know the hell that these kids would grow into, the post-1914 world," said Berman.

That's just about how Berman feels about the world today, he explained, that we are on the cusp of unimaginable challenges and changes. "Something has to happen every 80 years to wipe out the old order and put a new one in," he said. "What happens when those sort of moments happen in 1913 or 1928 or 1939, is that it's inconceivable on the other side. Nobody knows what's coming."

So, for the first time with Lookout Mountain Lookout Sea, Berman saw himself speaking to a younger generation, people born in 1980 and after, who will have to deal with the consequences of war and climate change and the competition for every kind of resources. "All my other records were for people my own age," he said. "This is one is for the kids who will have to face problems we can't even imagine."

Berman ruminated on his songs as he spoke, teasing out meanings that he clearly hadn't been aware of when he wrote them. All of which brought us to the somewhat fraught question of whether songs may sometimes contain ideas that the authors never consciously put into them. "It depends on how mystical you want to get about inspiration," said Berman. "I tend to have a hard work philosophy about how things get there and get done. But I have to say, there are amazing things, there are amazing patterns even in this album, connections that I could talk on and on about, that just started to spiderweb around. Things that I never intended."

For instance, he said it took him months to realize that the initials of the title Tanglewood Numbers were the abbreviation for Tennessee and that the album was bookended by a picture of Memphis on the front and of East Tennessee on the back. "So you have, in the form of a record, the entire state of Tennessee," he said.

Photo: Cassie Berman

Hitting the road ... again

The Silver Jews circa Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea brings together Berman, his wife Cassie on bass, drummer Brian Kotzur and keyboard player Tony Crow -- a band that has played together since the Tanglewood Numbers tour, Berman's first ever string of live dates. Asked if touring for a second time was any different from touring for the first, Berman responded, "First of all, for me, it looks like something I can do whereas before I wasn't sure. So there's that."

"At the same time, realistically, the first time I did it, it was a special event. The second time I do it maybe not so. Maybe shows won't be in as big of places," he added. "But maybe the main difference is that I've got 10 more songs. To me, the difference between having 35-40 songs and 45-50 songs is more than just the amount of material. It makes a big difference."

In addition to the new material, Berman said he is also working up some older songs that weren't part show last time. "Some of the songs I rejected for the first tour, I rejected on the basis of 'Well, it wouldn't sound like the record.' But this time as I go through it, I’m more open to the idea of, 'Oh, well, we could just play it differently, then.'"

Touring is, naturally, one of many things that's easier when you can see, when you have the confidence to step into new spaces and meet new people. Yet Berman added that he is not the only person who can benefit from looking at things in a clearer way. "At its largest level, the title of this album means 'Lookout humanity!'" he said. "For the first time, we can kill it all, depopulate the oceans and the world. We have the pesticide. We are the pesticide."

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