For the past 15 years, David Berman has led a creaky, cheap-sounding country-rock band called the Silver Jews. In a villagevoice.com blog post last October, William Bowers described Silver Jews fandom as a “discipleship.” The distinction—fan or disciple—is worth making. Berman’s a magnet for a subspecies of male American feeler: goths without eyeliner who recite Nashville-country one-liners like they were imagist poems and foster empathy so acute, it paralyzes. (A typical inquiry, from 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers: “Where does an animal sleep when the ground is wet?” If considered in earnest, questions like this make the task of waking up burdensome.) An informal survey of people I know suggests Bowers is at least half-right: One friend, when asked if he was Berman’s fan or his disciple, took a long pause, drew spring in through his nostrils, squinted, and said: “I’d say David Berman has changed the way several hundred—maybe thousand—young men live their day-to-day lives”—self-deprecation so subtle it could be Berman talking.
He’s a slacker, in essence: Passivity, for him, is a way to meditate on the world. His standard vocal mode is a mumble. He doesn’t just get cranky, he bottoms out: “I’m drunk on a couch in Nashville, in a duplex near the reservoir/And every single thought is like a punch in the face—I’m like a rabbit freezing on a star.” When he’s feeling good, that passivity allows him to sponge his surroundings, unharmed by them, to make solipsism (the primacy of his own perspective) and self-effacement (the negation of it) the same thing. When he’s feeling great, he paints himself out of his own self-portraits: “My ski vest has buttons like convenience-store mirrors and they help me see/That everything in this room right now is a part of me.” Berman’s legacy is his effortlessness. For him to make himself part of the room—well, that’d mean giving up his edge.
Around 2001, he started a slide that ended two years later in a suicide attempt. (Hardest-hitting punchline to date: He swallowed a handful of pills, smoked a lump of crack, and rented a suite at the Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville—where Al Gore holed up during the recount in 2000—professing to a bellboy that he wanted to die where the presidency did.) The day 2001’s Bright Flight was released, I listened to it with my friend Josh on a radio by the train tracks in Charlottesville, Virginia. A few songs in, Josh said: “God, this is rough. If I knew where he lived, I’d drive to Nashville, knock on his door, give him a hug, and tell him everything is gonna be OK.” Berman’s listed in the Nashville white pages; Josh didn’t actually drive there because that’d mean disrupting a bad mood—a golden space that Berman has taught his disciples to respect. Glorify, even.
So what does it mean that he’s cleaned up, started touring, and consciously attempting to enjoy life? For him, it means stability. It means being able to have a wife, Cassie, who has moved increasingly to the fore as a vocalist, instrumentalist, and songwriter since Bright Flight. And for his fans/disciples—a clot of sad men in their early twenties to mid-thirties—it means an acceptance of same. It means standing shoulder to shoulder while the guy who had always condoned their melancholy sings, with the barest glint of effort required to dignify a tune, about all he’s learned from accepting happiness.
Celebrating—or, worse, coddling—him for his sensitivity is morally bankrupt: A suicidal crackhead with personal poetics is still a suicidal crackhead. But Berman stowed his essence in tangents and his nature in his own fragility; his breakdown was a shame, but it had a calculus, an inevitability. Train tracks imply trains; the surface of the ocean implies, somewhere unseen, its floor. He was a guide to lows. But now he hits the world head-on. Now he offers generalizations where he used to offer specificity, because being specific is no way to build a rock chorus. And a chorus’s presence signifies enough—it’s an appeal to inclusion. It’s a hey, hello. But belonging is awkward, especially for Berman’s disciples, who were tacitly lured in by the possibility of alienation with a good sense of humor—or, at the very least, songs that implied a community but didn’t force anyone to sing along.
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is the band’s second album since Berman got sober. But more than sobriety, Berman appears moved by age. He’s ditched self- reflection for inscrutable shaggy-dog stories about carousin’ characters (“San Francisco B.C.”) and stuffed narrative ellipses with expensive-sounding guitar riffs (“Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer”)— whatever keeps him distracted from thinking about the universe, a compulsion that still breaks him (“My Pillow Is My Threshold”). He’s given up on the vogue of a ramshackle band; now sidemen are hired to give a shit, because he’s still not sure it’s worth it. So instead of rainy-day foot-shuffling, they offer honest-to-god boogie-woogie, wide-open spaces, and leitmotifs. It’s blameless glitz that, I guess, Berman wants—and deserves—at this point in his life. So it’s sad that he doesn’t sound that comfortable with any of it.
It goes without saying, I guess, that I’m a Berman disciple. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that his words suffuse moments in my life—important ones. But I’m not trying to cope with hero worship gone sour; I’m trying to figure out where Berman is trying to take his audience. It’s somewhere cleaner and rosier, somewhere with more sound effects. “Strange Victory, Strange Defeat”—the song’s a rabble-rouser, but I’d just always assumed that Berman didn’t conceive of the world as a place for wins and losses, but rather for gives and takes. Maybe growing up for him means making the stakes of living clearer, but the terms of it a little vaguer and easier to handle—lessons he’s learned the hard way, and, through well-meaning but muddled statements like Lookout Mountain, is asking, unintentionally, for his fans to suck it up and do the same.