For a moment, sandwiched between soliloquies on art and artists, David Berman pauses. He looks around his Manhattan hotel room. He looks up, down and at Cassie, his wife and bandmate. And then, as you wait for his words just as you would in song, he begins again: “I always say things I don’t believe.”
It’s a cryptic-enough statement from a songwriter whose lyrical abracadabra and syntax have kept fans hungering for more since he first started putting them to tape on 1994 debut Starlite Walker. Under the Silver Jews moniker, Berman’s development as an artist—and as a human being—has taken turns too numerous to count. It was here in New York City that it all began, Berman having started the group in 1990 with college buddies and Pavement upstarts Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich.
“First there was the Pavement thing, which I think has actually gone away,” says Berman of Silver Jews’ history. “Then there was that period that had something to do with academia. And the last record (2005’s Tanglewood Numbers) was suicide, Judaism and drugs.”
Silver Jews’ fourth and latest album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea! (Drag City), has been incubating since Berman bounced back from a 2003 suicide attempt that could’ve derailed much more than a career recording rock ’n’ roll songs for people who love poetry. (Berman, author of 1999 poetry volume Actual Air, is in NYC to attend a drawings-with-captions exhibit curated by McSweeney’s editor Dave Eggers. Berman’s work is being shown alongside pieces by Kurt Vonnegut, Leonard Cohen, Shel Silverstein and others.)
Recorded in Berman’s adopted hometown of Nashville last year, the more hopeful-sounding Lookout Mountain is the first Silver Jews album to be born and nurtured after touring. Though the band rarely played live during its first 16 years of existence, Berman became something of a road warrior in 2006, embarking on tours of the U.S. and Israel. The group’s stint in the Holy Land—documented in last year’s film Silver Jew—brought Berman closer to both his fans and his newfound faith; his conversion to Judaism two years prior helped lift him out of depression and substance abuse. Finally, that baritone fans have commiserated with spoke to them directly, and Silver Jews became something more communal. Playing his songs live, Berman saw young faces and felt the winds of applause and the ripples of his own creation.
“This is the first time I’m talking to people younger than me,” says Berman. “I’ve always felt despised by people growing up, and I think I have a hard time getting people my age to trust me. For adult men, the only thing like [male bonding on tour] is bowling teams. Speaking to younger people is the only reason to keep working at this point. I tend to look at myself through other people’s eyes and find myself failing. Now when I’m writing, I have to fight not to look through their eyes at me succeeding.”
Lookout Mountain standouts such as “Candy Jail,” “Party Barge” and “San Francisco B.C.” showcase Berman on an oxygen high. Any shadow that lingers is quickly dispatched, be it by a hopscotching turn of phrase or a guitar line. Berman admits he was in a good mood during the recording sessions, recalling fondly all the hard work of trimming each song of fat and likening those pains to muscle soreness from working in the garden. Though he probably isn’t anywhere near the winter of his career, Lookout Mountain plays like a grinning novelist’s nod toward shaping a legacy.
“I put stuff there to be read,” says Berman. “People can play these songs. A group of kids could buy this record, learn these songs and have a show. They could have a pageant. I feel that’s something you can take with you, like a book you’re going to look at later.”
In the past, it could be argued that Berman’s output was coveted because of his reclusive nature. With the Lookout Mountain booklet containing lyrics, guitar-chord diagrams and instructions for listeners to play these songs themselves, the poetic code that drew listeners to his work in the first place has been broken and demystified. Album centerpiece “Strange Victory, Strange Defeat” is as triumphant a song as Berman has ever written. Could he have penned it four or five years ago?
“Absolutely not. I didn’t believe in … ” He pauses. His eyes drift and come back again. “I was a much tinier person. My soul was smaller. I’ve seen a lot more hope.”