Silver Jewvy

By Eric Kelsey

To those unfamiliar, Silver Jews is the alias in which songwriter David Berman records under. A full-scale band with an ever-shifting lineup, Berman’s Silver Jews have been quietly the most consistent and intelligent rock acts over their 16-year existence. Originally formed with college buddies Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nostanovich, the Silver Jews were more of an impromptu band playing songs into their friends’ answering machines. Most of the Silver Jews’ and Berman’s fame comes from Malkmus forming Pavement later (Nostanovich came on to play drums as well). Wrongly considered a Pavement side project, Berman’s early Silver Jews largely reflects the rough lo-fi parameters of Pavement augmented in a country-pop sensibility.

Mid-October marked the release of Tanglewood Numbers (Drag City), the Silver Jews fifth album and first since 2001’s Bright Flight. After surviving a rough four years of substance abuse, depression and a suicide attempt, Berman’s Numbers relays his wry humor more prevalently and desperately than before. Like most great songwriters in the country tradition, Berman always sits at the point of crumbling into malcontent.

A genre built on self-parody and steeped in the traditional musing of self-loathing and pity the country narrative positions the singer as a folly-prone anti-hero. The rigid structures of country music, paradoxically allow for greater authorial control. Therefore, we hear standards reemerging throughout the eras. Even though Berman shies away from this game, country music comes down to its individual parts: it’s the way a vowel drawls and a syllable stressed–a guitar’s tone counts just as much as the snap of a shuffling snare.

These are the elements that Berman communicates the best. Merle Haggard, Hank Williams and Berman write like stand-up comics, waiting for when the time is right and pulling the string when it’s tightest.

Berman, though still mixing his earnestness with self-parody, seems to have finally jumped ship. Numbers starts with a high-pitched, electrified guitar line–one so reminiscent in the electro-country tradition that no one really notices anymore–but it’s a metallic bone-ringer, hanging on the edge of disintegration, and sustained long enough to make it whole. However, Berman’s vocal punchline breaks it all off. He sounds oddly enfeebled singing, “Where’s the paper bag that hold the liquor?/Just in case I feel the need to puke,” where before he gave off a tongue-in-cheek confidence (“In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection”). And the opening track, “Punks in the Beerlight,” has the anthematic qualities of an apex constructed through duration. Confusingly, Berman chooses to stamp the album out in the first three minutes.

Numbers proceeds in mismatched and manic sequences. Gone are the subtle touches best heard in “Tennessee,” on 2001’s Bright Flight, pleading, “Leave Kentucky and come to Tennessee/’cause you’re the only ten I see.”

This is not to say that Numbers falls flat–Berman is too intelligent for that to happen–and the album has some of his best work of his career, like “K-Hole,” and “How Can I Love You (If You Won’t Lie Down).” But the songcraft forms that he does better than 9/10ths of the rest are too scattered to make sense of. Berman’s a literalist, or better yet, an imagist of temporal nature: girls in special economic zones, a black Santa Claus, and punks in the “beerlight.” But Numbers never congeals like his prior work–even if it might be a career-defining release for some, to a Silver Jews fan it shows just how mortally vulnerable their cherished bard can be.