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Silver Jews: Salvation And Redemption

Going to hell and back has been a literary theme since the Epic of Gilgamesh, and in his sixth full-length as Silver Jews, DC Berman, like scores of writers before him, tracks a journey through a liquor-soaked underworld. "Where's a paper bag that holds the liquor... just in case I feel the need to puke," are the first words on the first song from Tanglewood Numbers, a black-humored waltz through country-tinged hells, animal-shaped hallucinations and unlikely, unlooked-for redemption.

As first lines go, it is not quite Dante's "In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost," but it marks the same kind of sharp before and after. A piece for Fader magazine, the only instance so far where Berman has been willing to describe the dark, drug- and alcohol-fueled self-destruction that preceded Tanglewood Numbers, begins with the bald statement "David Berman died November 19, 2003." It goes on to describe Berman's determination to take 300 orange Xanax, 10 at a time, between household chores, his car journey to a crackhouse (and live music venue) and his wife's unsuccessful attempt to get him to a hospital. Twelve-step veterans will recognize his story as a classic "bottom," the low that either kills you or saves your life. In Berman's case, the episode marked a turning point, and with the help of his wife, his newly rediscovered Judaism and a bout of creativity, he slowly made his way back to the world.

Berman's latest episode, he says, was just an extreme example of the swings he would make between productive sobriety and all-out abandon. "Basically, all of the songs I wrote, I wrote in periods of intense work and sobriety, SO that I could allow myself the dissolution and drift for an acceptable amount of time, and then work again to whatever degree I felt personally free to leave the scene of that labor," he explained in a recent email interview. "At a certain point the drifting didn't lead back to work and never would."

Those bright periods between binges have, however, yielded a series of visionary albums that meld laceratingly intelligent lyrics to laid-back, country-influenced melodies. Silver Jews started in 1989 as a partnership between Berman and Pavement members Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich. Though often mislabeled as a Pavement side project, this loosely configured group released its first EP, Dime Map of the Reef, in 1991, before Slanted and Enchanted made Malkmus an indie household name. It and the following Arizona Record were determinedly lo-fi, recorded on answering machines and tape Walkmans. Starlite Walker followed in 1994; the band's first studio album, recorded at Easley Recording Studios in Nashville, it became a cult classic.

Two years later, The Natural Bridge was released. The first Silver Jews album not to include Malkmus, it moved Q magazine to observe, "Temporarily Pavement-free, the Virginia based thirtysomething's second effort, backed with delicately strange altern-country by a quartet of unknowns, is marked by greater clarity and confidence." Malkmus was back in 1998 for American Water, an album Rolling Stone described as "like quirky populist poets holding court at the only decent bar in a redneck town." Bright Flight followed in 2001, widely considered the band's best, and including, for the first time, one Cassie Marrett, who has since become Berman's wife and songwriting partner. A four-year break, near-death, recovery and religious awakening led to Tanglewood Numbers.

Berman's fans focus mainly on his lyrics, but with Tanglewood Numbers the music is denser, more focused and more rock-oriented than ever before. The sweet-tempo'd, country-drawling "I'm Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You" backs incisive lyrics like "I've been working at the airport bar/ It's like Christmas in a submarine" with perfectly shaped teardrops of twangy pedal steel and unexpected bursts of strings. "K-Hole" spasms with discordant, disoriented guitars at the break, lending an authentic paranoia to its tales of the young black Santa Claus, who'd rather be dead than anything he knows. And, in "Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed," the music is fast, triumphant, almost buoyant, despite its title. Berman admitted in the interview that he worked harder on the music this time, though the question seemed to bore him, and he didn't elaborate.

The songs also bear the imprint of the people he worked with — his wife Cassie, Malkmus, Nastanovich and assorted other players. Cassie, for instance, wrote the melody to "The Poor, the Fair and the Good," and Berman the lyrics. "It sounded old-fashioned so I wrote her some old-fashioned lyrics for it," he said.

Malkmus, whose wandering guitar is all over the co-written "Farmer's Hotel," was waiting for his first child to be born during the recording sessions. "I had bought this 99-cent jug of water at the drug store," said Berman, when asked about the father-to-be. "It was a clear plastic gallon jug with a picture of a baby and the brand name Baby Water in faux crayon. I just had it because it was weird. It was on my workbench and he kept drinking from it during smoke breaks. I finally noticed and called him out on it. I sent a six-pack of it to his baby when she was born."

A well-regarded poet as well as a songwriter, Berman explained the difference: "Songwriting is, much of the time, like addressing a crowd. Writing poetry is like passing a note inside that crowd." So it makes sense that his addresses slip disconcerting bits of vernacular into their carefully constructed versus, as in the repeated "I love you to the max" chorus from "Punks in the Beerlight." Berman said these colloquial phrases add, "I think, chiefly, a naturalism." He explained, "There's that inner yelping unburied when you crash a bike. You try to get that down in there somewhere."

Berman's songs often seem like short works of fiction, stories briefly alluded to and then discarded. However, as a writer, he downplays his role as a storyteller and says it's more a matter of observation. "If there was a call to do so I could write hundreds of pages of footnotes to the songs I've written, sourcing the images and references to things I've experienced or read about," he said.

One of the subtler influences on his writing, this time out, may be his new commitment to Judaism. There are no direct religious references on Tanglewood Numbers, but Berman speculated that the subject was there, all the same. "Passing from an aesthetical/ethical worldview into a religious worldview alleviates a great deal of what is commonly known as the Fear, or that which lies beyond the Harsh Door," he said. "Add to that an increased valuation in the meaning of the work you do, and there is some of its effect. But I'm new, so I don't know."

These days, the famously reclusive songwriter is granting interviews to dozens of publications, all by email. He says he considers these email interviews a form of productive writing "insofar as they're not too bullshitty," and his answers often have the look and feel of found poetry. For example, asked if the focus on his dramatic story would take away from consideration of his music, he waxed cynical. "In my experience as a reader of interviews, the focus is rarely on the songs. If you laid all the different issues of Rolling Stone, with hot young actresses on the cover, side by side on the bathroom floor, and spattered them with spermdrops you'd have the underlying agenda of nearly all entertainment reportage revealed at your feet," he said. "Except what gets written in Blender. That shit's for real."

How far would he go in promoting Tanglewood Numbers? A first-ever Silver Jews tour may be in the works, and Berman says even mainstream promotional outlets like late-night TV aren't out of the question, "if someone could prove to me that it would sell records." But forget about a DC Berman-hosted version of Apprentice. The Silver Jews frontman has other ideas. "How about Drag City Bootcamp? Can't you see Bill Smog on the obstacle course? Pvt. Edith Frost breaking down in tears after the Sergeant chews her out?" he said, and we can, indeed, we can. — Jennifer Kelly [Monday, December 5, 2005]


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