All That Glitters is Gold - A Celebration of the Life and Music of David Berman


(Photo Credit - Gary Wolstenholm - Getty Images) 

This is All That Glitters is Gold, a recurring piece about some of my favorite artists, albums, tracks, and live shows. Here I will write about the music I love, most of which inspired me to start Alt Revue in the first place. I'm excited to highlight this music and talk about how it has impacted me. I hope you enjoy getting a glimpse into some of my favorites!

"And as much as we might like to seize the reel and hit rewind / Or quicken our pursuit of what we're guaranteed to find / When the dying's finally done and the suffering subsides / All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind / All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind..." 

                                             -Purple Mountains - "Nights That Won't Happen".

One of the most dynamic and underrated voices, lyricists, and poets of our time died on August 7, 2019 at just 52 years old. Authorities have now ruled David Berman's untimely death a suicide. Berman was perhaps best known for his time as the main force behind the New York City indie band, Silver Jews, that ran from 1989 until 2009. He recently resurfaced from a 10-year musical hiatus to release a fantastic new album under a new name, Purple Mountains. He died just days before he was set to tour for the critically acclaimed new album. While his death was a tragedy, what I would like to do is focus on what he left us. Years and years worth of incredible music, lyrics, and his soul put right into song. That said, let's take a deep dive into Silver Jews and Purple Mountains' music. 

Starlite Walker - (1994)

Silver Jews' first major LP release on Drag City Records, where they would release all of their records. For being the band's first LP, it's a significantly mature record. It features sophisticated songwriting, lyrics, and melodies. Listening to this album makes me wish I could have somehow caught a Silver Jews show with Dinosaur Jr., and Built to Spill on the same bill in the 90s. It would have been absolutely incredible. 

"The Moon is The Number 18," has a bit of a 90s alt edge to it, with distorted guitars and heavy bass and drums, it's absolute nostalgia candy that's oh so sweet. "Advice to the Graduate," is a track that does a phenomenal job at building through melody and percussion. "Pan-American Blues," is probably my pick of the lot on the album. It features such strong guitar work and Berman's vocals are at their best here. The melody is just so damn strong.  

Songs I'd Recommend - Trains Across the Sea, Advice to The Graduate, Pan-American Blues, New Orleans and Rebel Jew

The Natural Bridge - (1996)

The Natural Bridge shows Silver Jews experimenting with different sounds. Some tracks, such as "Black and Brown Blues," have pretty folky upbeat melody and vocals that would become the signature for Berman's Purple Mountains album. However, the downtrodden, "Ballad of Reverend War Character," plays just like the title reads. It's somber, but purposeful. Berman's voice is shaky, yet forceful throughout the song. It's as if he has to convey the lyrics of this song to you as if he has some magic power to reach through your speakers (he does).

I also loved Berman's masterful irony of including an instrumental called, "The Right to Remain Silent." I think that including "The Right to Remain Silent" was the perfect palate cleanser before moving to the more upbeat "Dallas." Having "Dallas" lead straight after the forceful and deep "Ballad of Reverend War Character" just wouldn't have played as well, in my opinion. "Abemarle Station" has a folk/psychedelic/surf play to the melody (organs included). It's one you can listen to and simply drift away. The Natural Bridge features Berman appearing to become more confident in his vocals and singing more forcefully. He would always say he's a bad singer, but I don't think that's true at all. He's likely a misunderstood one as his voice was perfect for his music.    

Songs I'd Recommend - Pet Politics, Black and Brown Blues, Ballad of Reverend War Character, and Albemarle Station

American Water - (1998)

This was definitively Silver Jews most popular and acclaimed album. It contained their biggest hit, "Random Rules". This was a song that would encompass a lot of what Berman spoke about thematically, such as the rules of society, who creates them, and why do we follow them. It also contains "Smith & Jones Forever," the last song that Silver Jews would ever play live before they broke up.

"Night Society" sounds so close to a Dinosaur Jr., track with its screeching guitar, that it almost knocks you over. You eagerly anticipate Berman's vocals to see how they compliment the guitar, but they never come. And you're left to wonder what could have been. On "Federal Dust," Berman is joined on vocals by Stephen Malkmus (of Pavement) who also shares a writing credit. The result almost brings comparisons of an early version of Modest Mouse, it's so good. 

"People" is Berman at his most melodic, vocally, at least thus far. The guitars reach high and Berman meets them when they do. He also does some great vocal harmonization in this one (taking the lower end of the vocal register obviously). "Blue Arrangements" features Berman and Malkmus again, with Malkmus getting a writing credit here also. It's a fabulous alternative track with great guitar, especially on the hook.   

By this point, Berman and the gang have fully matured into a full-on indie rock outfit. The album reached critical success and was named Pitchfork's number 12 album of the year. They became an institution for those who were in the know. With the release of American Water, a lot more people became in the know. 

Songs I'd Recommend - Random Rules, Smith & Jones Forever, People, and Blue Arrangements

Bright Flight - (2001)