Last week, for some reason now forgotten, I happened to bethink myself of the Silver Jews album American Water. So I looked it up on the Spotify and listened to it, and then listened to it again and again. I’m listening to it right now.
According to my rating system it’s their best album — and by “they” I mean David Berman, who comprised the Silver Jews along with whoever happened to be around at the time. In the case ofAmerican Water that included his college friend Stephen Malkmus, leader of Pavement and musical genius of the first order.
Berman himself, though he made quite a few records, was more of a poet who sang than a musician per se. So the combination was a fortuitous one. You can drop the proverbial needle almost anywhere on American Water and strike gold. Take for example “Federal Dust,” the first Jews song I ever heard — a typically cryptic number that lopes and lurches along for a couple minutes, then ascends into the clouds. (Or maybe gets sucked down into a whirlpool? It’s hard to tell.)
Pretty much the whole album operates at that level, which is a rare and wonderful thing. David Berman had his ups and downs, to say the least; sections of his Wikipedia page are entitled “Critical acclaim and substance abuse” and “Attempted suicide, rehab and career progression.” He was an extremely troubled person, but it is impossible to separate his problems from what made him so brilliant.
In 2019, after a long period away from the music business, Berman released a new record under a new name. Purple Mountains is a deeply strange piece of work — profoundly, pristinely sad but with a sparkly pop sheen, kind of like that Leonard Cohen album that Phil Spector produced. It was critically acclaimed and a lengthy tour was planned that people were quite excited about. Then Berman, perversely, chose that moment to finally pull his own plug.
This can hardly be called a surprise; even at the timePurple Mountains played like an elegantly composed suicide note. Who knows what’s the final straw that causes a person to finally decide they can’t stand one more day? It happens.
Writing this has me thinking about my friend Todd Marcus, who chose to exit this mortal plane back in 2004. Todd was a warm and generous person who was unfailingly kind to everyone but himself. He also struggled with mental illness and self-medicated with hard drugs and all that good stuff. We had been friends since sixth grade but after he moved to LA in the late 90s we drifted apart. He would pop up for a while and then he would disappear for a while, and then one time he disappeared and never came back.
I know I could have done more for him, and I carry a little guilt about that, but on the other hand sometimes you have to draw boundaries in the interest of self-preservation. 2004 was a shit year all around, and maybe let’s not get started on that just now.
Where am I going with this? Nowhere — I have no deep point to make; just thinking out loud. But by way of finishing on an up note, let’s listen to the last track fromAmerican Water, “The Wild Kindness.” This sounds like it comes from a hopeful moment in David Berman’s life, and finds him dedicating himself to “spurn the sin of giving in” and “shine out in the wild kindness/and hold the world to its word.”
It didn’t exactly work out in the end. But then what does? For three minutes and fifty-four seconds you will believe it’s possible, and sometimes that’s enough.