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)

 

"Slow Education" kicks off with an upbeat melody and a lot of harmonies between David Berman and an uncredited female vocalist (likely Berman's wife, Cassie Berman, who was known to have contributed vocals and bass to this album). The harmonies are absolute dynamite. "I Remember Me," is an alt-country song from Silver Jews that has a dynamic melody to it and nice breaks from it as well. It's all so perfectly paced that it leaves you wanting more. "Transylvania Blues," follows-up the dynamic ",Horseleg Swastikas," as an instrumental palate cleanser of sorts. 

 

"Let's Not and Say We Did," is perhaps the most musically interesting of the album. It features dynamic piano throughout that holds the melody down, it's accompanied by fantastic drums. It may be the most upbeat track of Silver Jews career. I certainly think easily so. "Tennessee," is a vocal duet featuring David and Cassie Berman. It's a track that with the first verse seems autobiographical in a way. "Friday Night Fever," trends more alt-country with a slight steel guitar played throughout. It discusses men wanting to go out having "Friday Night Fever," leaving their significant other behind at home. Berman makes it clear he's no cheater, he just needs a breather. This one is downright fun.   

 

Songs I'd Recommend - Slow Education, I Remember Me, Horseleg Swastikas, and Tennessee   

Tanglewood Numbers - (2005)

 

Tanglewood Numbers represents an evolution for Silver Jews. The likely reason for this is because between the recording of Bright Light and Tangelwood Numbers, Berman suffered with substance abuse and a suicide attempt. Tanglewood Numbers kicks off with the rocking "Punks in The Beerlight," which is extremely upbeat for a Silver Jews number. There's great distortion on the guitars and they lead a fantastic melody.  

 

"K-Hole," features the use of electronic sounds, far more than had ever been used in the past. It's another change from the past of the Silver Jews' sound. It's not a bad change, it works well. "Animal Shapes," features fiddle, which to my knowledge had never previously been featured on a Silver Jews song. There is also some great harmonization between Berman and the backing vocalists (likely Cassie Berman again) here, which results in a warm sound. "I'm Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You," is more of a quintessential Silver Jews song except for the presence of prominent backing vocals that do more than just harmonize. One other thing worth mentioning is that it features some fantastic leads on it. "The Poor, The Fair And The Good," may not feature Berman's vocals as prominently, but that's because there's so damn much going on with the melody. It features dynamic fuzzy guitar throughout that solos like a banshee, a middle section that is pure alt-country full of fiddle, and banjo. There are so many elements in this song that you would think have no place being together, but when combined it becomes this psychedelic, alt-country, indie mashup that is just amazing.   

 

Overall, the album represents a major shift in sound. It features the electric guitar much more prominently than past Silver Jews albums had. There isn't much piano to be found on the record at all. That said, different isn't bad, but some critics got down on this album because it was different. I'm all about seeing an artist or a band evolve. This was a simple evolution that came at a natural time (during a comeback). 

 

Songs I'd Recommend - Punks in The Beerlight, K-Hole, I'm Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You, and The Poor, The Fair And The Good 

Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea - (2008)

 

This album has been self-described by David Berman as an album that is "really different" from previous ones. The album itself starts off fairly light for a Silver Jews album. The melodies are tight and upbeat and the lyrics aren't as cutting as normal. Musically, "Suffering Jukebox" is fun because it features Cassie Berman so prominently on vocals with Berman. Cassie essentially sings the entire chorus. 

 

Many of the tracks on this album are more melodic than previous albums. "Open Field," features rhythm guitar work that is straight indie guitar work. The backing vocals on the song set it apart, but it hardly varies musically. That doesn't mean it's a bad song, it just doesn't sound like a Silver Jews song. "San Francisco B.C.," features some of Berman's best vocals. I love when he has his vocals raised, franticly, just below a slight growl, with just a dash of Johnny Cash. "Candy Jail," is the straight alt-country flavored goodness that you've come to know and love by now from Silver Jews. 

 

When we hear Berman say that Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea was "really different" than his other albums, I believe he meant thematically/lyrically. I chalk this up to the fact that, according to Berman, he had arranged the songs and left the lyrics for last on the album. He then kept rewriting the lyrics and never truly felt satisfied with the finished product. While it might be Silver Jews most radio friendly album, it's still good and should not be discounted. 

 

Songs I'd Recommend - Suffering Jukebox, Strange Victory, Strange Defeat, San Francisco B.C., Candy Jail and We Could Be Looking For The Same Thing.  

Purple Mountains - (2019) 

 

After 10 long years, David Berman returned on July 12, 2019 with the self-titled album from his new project, Purple Mountains. Right out of the gate, this album gets you going with "That's Just the Way That I Feel," which is a bit more upbeat than a traditional Silver Jews track. But this is a new project, so Berman shouldn't be beholden to his previous sound, although there are obvious similarities. What's important to note here, is that this was many people's introduction to David Berman and some of them had no idea about his history with Silver Jews. 

 

"All My Happiness is Gone," is such a banger. The chorus on this track might be the most tight, most melodic hook Berman ever wrote. I don't know as it's so tough to look at it all in a vacuum. It's certainly worthy of a debate. "Darkness and Cold," is another strong song on the album which again makes good use of chorus. The melody is great, as are the organs used throughout. "Snow is Falling in Manhattan," comes in at just over a 6 minute clip, but every second is needed and worth your time. 

 

"Nights That Won't Happen," is a song that I will probably have to hold back a tear on for some time. As the lyrics above show, this song is about loss and leaving people behind. It feels like David Bermans, "Lazarus" (more on that in just a bit). "Maybe I'm the Only One For Me," is another dynamic track from the album that goes back to Berman's alt country roots. He also got an assist on the songwriting of this one by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and Gate Pratt. Berman features great steel guitar and organs in the track, but his vocals are front and center here.   

 

While the circumstances between David Bowie's and David Berman's deaths were very different, I think their final albums are worth a comparison. David Bowie's, Dark Star, and David Berman's, Purple Mountains, to me are the critical pinnacles of both men's careers, at least when taking the totality of the albums into account. While David Bowie wrote Dark Star knowing he was out of time, it's tragic to think about David Berman writing Purple Mountains and then devastatingly ending his life before he got a chance to celebrate it, by touring to support it.    

 

Songs I'd Recommend - That's Just the Way That I Feel, All My Happiness is Gone, Snow is Falling in Manhattan, Margaritas at the Mall, and Nights That Won't Happen 

At 52 years old we lost David Berman way too soon. I think so much about what more he could have done as Purple Mountains. Would there ever be a Silver Jews reunion of some sort? I know there are quite a few ex-members, but hey who knows? When I think about the loss, it is so disheartening to know that Berman felt he had no other choice at that time. So while I wanted to take time to celebrate his life, it would be irresponsible of me to not say, if you're ever feeling in a similar situation, you are loved, we need you. There is help here or via 1-800-273-8255.  

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