|Silver Jews / American Water (October 20, 1998)
Silver Jews / American Water (October 20, 1998) Birth name: David Berman
Born: January 4, 1967, Williamsburg, Virginia
Origin: New York City, United States
Genres: Country rock, indie, alt~country
Released: October 20, 1998
Recorded: Rare Book Room, Brooklyn
Record Label: Drag City
01. Random Rules 4:00
02. Smith & Jones Forever 3:20
03. Night Society 2:19
04. Federal Dust (David Berman, Stephen Malkmus) 4:03
05. People 4:45
06. Blue Arrangements (Berman, Malkmus) 4:40
07. We Are Real 4:24
08 Send in the Clouds 5:26
09. Like Like the the the Death 4:00
10. Buckingham Rabbit 4:58
11. Honk If You’re Lonely (Berman, Gate, Pratt) 2:49
12. The Wild Kindness 3:54
By Alexander DePompei 7/23/15
♣••♣ American Water marked the first time that Silver Jews stopped being a Pavement side project (both bands, by the way, formed around the same time) and demonstrated their ability to be a band that puts out music that is just as good if not better than Malkmus’ main focus. Still, for all intents and purposes this album is far from being a Pavement album even with their fingerprints all over it. Many critics at the time attributed this album’s greatness to Malkmus, despite them knowing very well that it was Berman who wrote every single song on the record. This album reunited David Berman and Stephen Malkmus after a one album break, and the end result are some of Berman’s most evocative lyrics and Malkmus’ best guitar work in his whole catalog. The two share lead vocal duties on “Blue Arrangements”, “Send In The Clouds”, and “Federal Dust”, finding the perfect mix between Berman’s baritone vocals and Malkmus’ high tenor. In typical Silver Jews fashion, they include an instrumental track “Night Society”. Berman said in a 2002 interview that it serves “as respite from the words and/or my voice (which doesn’t agree with everyone to say the least)”, yet the track is much more than a simple break in the album. From ballads about execution to honky tonk tracks about feeling lonely, this album hits territory that wasn’t explored in this era’s indie music but fits in perfectly at the same time. Silver Jews are no more, and David Berman returned to writing poetry after the dissolution. David Berman begins the opening track “Random Rules” with “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection”, and while he might still not have achieved it on American Water, he gets pretty damn close.
by Mike Powell, JULY 30 2017 / Score: 9.4
♣••♣ In 1998, David Berman approached perfection. Absorbed in metaphor, ennui, and isolation, the loping music of American Water didn’t seem like it was trying to be art. It just was.
♣••♣ Ibought Silver Jews’ third album American Water at a now~defunct record store in lower Manhattan called Kim’s. I was 15, maybe 16, and hoped — as I always hoped when I bought something at Kim’s — that the clerks might interpret my selection as a cry for help, or at least a signal that I was up for something cool after their shift. No luck.
♣••♣ The first time I played it — that unsteady strumming of electric guitar, David Berman’s country deadpan — I suspect it was in the living room of my dad’s apartment. He raised his eyebrow and wondered aloud if Silver Jews were the worst band he’d ever heard. I pointed out that he owned two albums by the Doors.
♣••♣ That my dad didn’t understand this rickety human music only brought me and American Water closer together. Berman had even written a line about this, in a way, on a song called “We Are Real”: “Repair is the dream of the broken thing,” it went. “Like a message broadcast on an overpass, all my favorite singers couldn’t sing.” Here was the implicit promise of indie rock — that you could do something even if the Figurative Dad says you sucked at it — compressed into a one~liner, the insult as a badge of honor, or a casually raised middle finger.
♣••♣ The band had started at the end of the 1980s, three college friends making noisy sketches in their Hoboken apartment. (Some of these sketches were recorded direct to the answering machine of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth — a kind of high~culture prank call that telegraphed Berman’s uneasy relationship to the decorum of indie rock.) One of the three friends, Stephen Malkmus, had also recently started a band called Pavement with his childhood friend Scott Kannberg; Silver Jews were — as sadly befits Berman’s fixation on runners~up and marginalia — often footnoted as a Pavement side project. (Silver Jews’ first album, Starlite Walker, came out in 1994, the same year Pavement hit MTV.)
♣••♣ It was Berman who came up with the phrase “slanted and enchanted,” which Malkmus borrowed for Pavement’s first album, one of the definitive statements of slackness and grandeur of early~’90s indie rock. Berman, for his part, said he got the idea from Emily Dickinson: “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” Berman’s own world was always creakier and foggier than Pavement’s, less edgy, more rustic — not the conscious weirdness of post~punk, but the unconscious weirdness of the American frontier, of religious talk radio, bumper stickers.
♣••♣ “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.” That’s American Water’s first line. It sounds like the kind of thing you’d overhear at a bar in a dream, the war story of an also~ran. You know, “they had to put me in the hospital — I was just that good.” Of course, he doesn’t attain perfection; nobody in Berman’s world does. You get the sense that 1984 was a long time ago and the man has been counting the days ever since.
♣••♣ The album limps along in this sassy, broken way. There’s that line about repair I mentioned before. There are duct~taped shoes and suspenders made of extension cords. There are dragging mufflers and iceboxes filled with grass. Many of the guitar solos seem to sputter out halfway through like a drunk in a foot race, a pantomime of classic rock. Try me, they say, ass~down on the pavement.
♣••♣ As with a lot of their peers on the Chicago label Drag City (Royal Trux, Bill Callahan, Bonnie “Prince” Billy), Silver Jews grew out of a moment in underground music when the crimes of the 1970s and ’80s seemed safely enough in the rearview that you could take from that stuff what you wanted. No longer did one have to stand in symbolic opposition to the Rolling Stones — R.E.M. and the Butthole Surfers had done that for you. If one narrative of the 1980s was underground music’s intrusion into a broader commercial space, the narrative of the 1990s was one of commercial music winding its way back into the underground. This is how American Water comes to sound more like “Dead Flowers” than Can, but also why I think my dad couldn’t process it: He figured if you’re going to sound a little like “Dead Flowers,” you might as well really go for it.
♣••♣ Berman seemed bent on playing against type, a sensitive man sensitive to the pretensions of sensitive men. His writing stands against urbanity and sophistication, but also against the roots~music fantasies of a home on the range where one can do things like wear denim and “be real.” He was and probably remains a football fan. In one interview, he described a reading he gave at the University of Charleston by saying, “I thought it was an extraordinarily large~breasted student body.” In the same, he described a brief interlude in Louisville by saying, “Sure, my neighborhood bar was a BW~3, but at least I didn’t have to deal with the sullen and homely hippy women that make up such a large portion of that town’s rock scene.”
♣••♣ Here was a songwriter absorbed by metaphor and isolation who also told funny stories about hanging out at frat houses, whose country~music preferences elided countercultural tokens like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash for artists like Charlie Rich, a ’70s singer whose violin~drenched odes to marital love and extramarital affairs could only be construed as roots music by people raised in dentist’s offices. Authenticity, the subtext runs, is a dogma just like any other. With its stylish, funny evocations of style~free concepts like dive bars and tract homes, of “suburban kids with Biblical names,” American Water didn’t seem like it was trying to be art. It just was.
♣••♣ Describing the sessions for the album to the Washington Post in 2008, newly sober and with religion, Berman said, “I was taking a lot of drugs at that time. And there were a lot of drugs in the studio. And all these things that would have horrified indie rock people, that I would never want them to know. I wanted to make a record that wasn’t some terrible, big, painful experience. I wanted to make records like other people make records, where you’re having fun when you’re doing it.”
♣••♣ What was that contextually painful experience Berman was referring to, you wonder. The band’s second album, The Natural Bridge, had been a trial. Berman, who had recently finished his MFA in poetry at the University of Massachusetts, got so anxious and turned around during the sessions that he eventually had to be hospitalized for sleep deprivation, a state which he likened to being “constantly on the line with God.” Describing the session for the album’s last song, “Pretty Eyes,” drummer Rian Murphy said Berman looked like “a man who was being haunted by ghosts while he was singing.” At one point Berman counseled guitarist Peyton Pinkerton to play like his feet were sopping wet.
♣••♣ In the same Post interview, Berman said, “The Natural Bridge is me finding out that random rules and I can’t handle it. It’s too painful that that’s the way life is. And then in American Water I’m trying to re~say it again, to someone else, after having accepted it.”
♣••♣ But for all its wit, disaffection and wonder, American Water is also an album of disappointment and angst, of what the writer Thomas Beller, in his appreciation of Berman, called “the bitterness of knowledge.” Like the fiction of Thomas McGuane circa 92 in the Shade or some of Barry Hannah’s darker stuff, these are visions of people with nothing left to lose, New South scenes rippling with Old Testament violence. “My mama named me after a king,” Berman sings on the “Send in the Clouds,” biting off the end of the line. “I’m gonna bury my name in you.” Elsewhere, on “Blue Arrangements,” he and Malkmus describe a father coming home and trashing his son’s room, concluding, “In the end the boy raises himself.” The laziness of the music only cinches the scene’s gothic inevitability: Dad’s going to fuck you up no matter what you do.
♣••♣ The climax of the album comes paradoxically early, on a song called “Smith & Jones Forever.” These are the shadowy men with the duct~taped shoes and extension~cable suspenders. Like some arcane hillbilly disco, the song is at once dreamy and dreadful, a crystal ball wherein all one sees is fire. Toward the middle, they quiet, dispersed in a fog. “Got two tickets to a midnight execution,” Berman sings, “hitchhike our way from Odessa to Houston. When they turn on the chair, something’s added to the air/When they turn on the chair, something’s added to the air forever.” Suddenly they alight, fiery and ragged. We are still in the world of glue-sniffers and weekend fishermen, of country~club pools, companion dogs, and fast~food lobbyists, but we are also in the world of ghosts, of good and of evil. Berman seems to see one just behind the other, like transparencies laid on an overhead projector.
♣••♣ His and the band's delivery — dry, creaky, but filled with soul — doesn’t try to hide the pain of these songs with polish or sleights of hand. It’s actually impossible to imagine American Water performed with conventional finesse, by a singer who could sing, by a band who could turn on a dime. It would sound too correct, too rehearsed, the insights of entertainers instead of the revelations of ordinary men.
♣••♣ Shortly after Berman disbanded Silver Jews in 2009 — their final show was in a cave about 300 feet below McMinnville, Tennessee — he offered a public note, part~explanation, part~confession, part~origin story, explaining his relationship to his own father, a powerful, conservative lobbyist named Rick Berman. “He attacks animal lovers, ecologists, civil action attorneys, scientists, dieticians, doctors, teachers,” Berman wrote. “His clients include everyone from the makers of Agent Orange to the Tanning Salon Owners of America.” The note continued, funny, imperiled, self~critical, angry, despairing, the bully and the victim at war in one head. “This winter I decided that the SJs were too small of a force to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused,” he wrote. Judging from the punch lines alone you would’ve never known he was at war.
♣••♣ Berman’s stated epiphany about American Water — “I’m trying to re~say it again, to someone else, after having accepted it” — didn’t quite stick. He got deeper into drugs — Dilaudid, crack, the kinds of things that vault one into strange company. Shortly before going on tour in late 1998 — something Berman was famously reticent about doing, and didn’t end up actually doing until 2006 — he got into a fistfight in Spain and had his eardrum ruptured. Tour was canceled. In 2001 he put out a very funny, dark, fragile~sounding Silver Jews album called Bright Flight. “The people that I was writing for were for the audience from [American Water],” Berman told the Post. “An indie rock crowd. But my companions were crooks and prostitutes. All manner of sick, sick, despairing, falling apart lives. And I think that there is a major problem in there because I’m not focused, and I reached a point where a lot of my friends that year died, a couple friends. I didn’t have any perspective. For instance, the idea of me being alive right now wasn’t really feasible. It just wasn’t possible to me. At that point I had just lost the plot and I didn’t care.”
♣••♣ When Berman attempted suicide in 2003 — walking into the Nashville hotel in which Al Gore watched the 2000 election and requesting Gore’s suite on account of wanting to die where American democracy did — I felt, melodramatically but not for the last time, that ending one’s life was the only logical conclusion for someone who saw life the way he did: filled with precious things about which nobody but him seemed to care, not an expression of isolation so much as unbearable connection. Who will tend to this stuff, the moment seemed to ask. Who will nurse the world.
♣••♣ I’m projecting, of course, and also probably overestimating the capacity of someone so far gone he had come to believe the vodka was actually cleaning his organs. Still, almost 20 years after the day I descended into Kim’s, I pick through Berman’s writing with Kabbalistic interest, like a backpack out of which I continuously manage to shake lost keys and other useful things. My best friend sometimes cautions me against these conclusions — equating sadness with glory, equating weakness with truth. At the very least, there is the concern of giving undue weight to the insights of someone who later tried to die. I agree it makes only an awful kind of sense. But growing up in America one gets so tired of hearing about winning. Here is the story of a bright morning after you lose. ♣••♣ https://pitchfork.com/
÷ Starlite Walker (1994) LP/CD
÷ The Natural Bridge (1996) LP/CD
÷ American Water (1998) LP/CD
÷ Bright Flight (2001) LP/CD
÷ Tanglewood Numbers (2005) LP/CD
÷ Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (2008) LP/CD
|Silver Jews / American Water (October 20, 1998)