12 Great lyrics from the Silver Jews

As time drifts ever so slowly by, and the memory of the Silver Jews as going concern grows ever smaller, I often ponder how such a band will be remembered in years to come.  I don’t meet many people who have heard of this lose collection of musicians or their enigmatic band leader David Berman, a man who’s music is the perfect accompaniment for anyone navigating their 20s and 30s at a mid-paced speed.  As Berman slips further into civilian life, I wonder if and when we’ll ever hear from him again in any kind of musical capacity.  I’m always trying to spread gospel of the Joos so it seems as good a time as any to list my favourite lyrics from the man himself.  Let’s begin right away…

Way way out past where the sidewalks disappear
And up through bright blue blocks of sky
Where the days turn to weeks in the months of the year
And where together, you and I.
We Could Be Looking For The Same Thing

We’ll start with a lyric from the last Silver Jews album to be released, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, which was released in 2008.  By his own admission, Berman’s songwriting steam had run out by the time the album was released, but he still came up with some real classics on some of the tunes.  If I remember correctly, Berman described the song as a ‘modern-day love letter’ – the title says it all:  romance is less a priority than convenience and compatibility.  It’s the poetry in the song’s opening lines that really grab really.  Berman actually admitted to Googling the ‘Where the days…’ line because he was convinced someone else would have come up with it first.

In twenty-seven years
I drunk fifty thousand beers
And they just wash against me
Like the sea into a pier
Trains Across The Sea

Taken from ‘Starlite Walker‘, Silver Jews’ first album released in 1994, this lyric is classic Berman lyric of the time.  Poetry mixed with slacker observation.  ‘Trains Across The Sea‘ is the album’s first (proper) track – I love Berman’s stoned delivery and ramshackle backing band.  Silver Jews weren’t so much of a band at this point and were more just a bedroom band comprised of Berman and his university  friends Bob Nastanovich and Stephen Malkmus from Pavement.  Still, the music is excellent.

Out the window, in the harbor he saw a little ship
The moon was worn just slightly on the right
And they slow danced so the needle wouldn’t skip
Until the room was filled with light
I Remember Me

A highlight from 2001’s Bright Flight album, I Remember Me is a touching tale  about tragedy striking a young couple.  It’s a very powerful song and should ideally be listened to in hushed silence.  I like the imagery in the above lyrics, especially the moon being ‘worn just slightly on the right’.  The rest of the song contains some very typical Berman imagery including ‘a black hawk nailed to the sky, and the tape hiss in the trees‘.  The clicking typewriter in the background is a nice touch.

I asked a painter why the roads are coloured black.
He said, “Steve, it’s because people leave
and no highway will bring them back.”
Random Rules

There’s plenty of these kinds of Berman lyrics floating around the Silver Jews 6 albums.  It sounds like a line from a film.  The song is from 1998’s American Water, arguably the Joos’ finest hour and definitely a showcase for Steve Malkmus’ amazing knack for a guitar solo.

You can’t change the feeling
but you can change your feelings about the feeling in a second or two…
People always come around.
People

There’s also plenty of wordplay in Silver Jews songs…

On an unrelated note:  I love the way Berman’s voice is so high in the mix on American Water.  In fragile, often hungover moments the sound of his cracked and booming voice coming from the speakers is a very powerful thing…

Four dogs in the distance
each stands for a silence.
Bluebirds lodged in an evergreen altar…
I’m gonna shine out in the wild kindness
and hold the world to its word.
The Wild Kindness

I guess an imagination of sorts (plus some context, melody and rhythm) is required to appreciate such a lyric as the above.  It’s just kinda cool, ok?

‘Repair is the dream of the broken thing.
Like a message broadcast on an overpass
all my favorite singers couldn’t sing.

‘We’ve been raised on replicas of fake and winding roads
and day after day up on this beautiful stage
we’ve been playing tambourine for minimum wage
but we are real, I know we are real.

Repair is the dream of the broken thing.
Like a message broadcast on an overpass
all my favorite singers couldn’t sing.
We Are Real

I’ve reproduced the above lyric in such length primarily to highlight two important lines I live by on a daily basis.  The first is ‘all my favourite singers couldn’t sing‘ – I have quoted this line to many people and most definitely agree with the sentiment.  All my favourite singers (Mark E Smith, Jonathan Richman, David Berman) can’t sing in a conventional sense.  A good voice is no prerequisite for being a great singer.

The second line I love is ‘we’ve been playing tambourine for minimum wage, but we are real‘, a lyric often quoted by my friend Tim.  It’s a nod to the reality of touring and a celebration of integrity.

Boy wants a car from his Dad
Dad says, first you gotta cut that hair
Boy says, hey Dad Jesus had long hair
and Dad says
that’s right son but Jesus walked everywhere
The Frontier Index

‘The Frontier Index‘ is from The Natural Bridge, the Silver Jews’ second album released in 1996.  It’s my favourite album and contains a number of beautiful lines from the great man.  This is one of them.

All houses dream in blueprints
our house dreams so hard
Outside you can see my shoeprints
I’ve been dreaming in your yard

One of these days these days will end
Thru the kitchen window the light will bend
You’ll be carving a pumpkin with a knife
when someone at the table says
“that’s not what I call a life!”
Pretty Eyes

The Natural Bridge ends in style with the slightly doom-tinged ‘Pretty Eyes‘, a song Berman wrote for his dog.  Again, it’s the imagery that grabs me – little solemn scenes from life that have been rendered so vivid and Berman’s colorful hand.

On another off-topic note – Berman is a seriously good songwriter.  For a man who admits to having only ever written 50 songs, it’s damn well astonishing how accomplished he is at songwriting.  ‘Pretty Eyes‘ is simple stuff in terms of melody and chords yet it is very powerful.

I could see through the sleeve on her blouse
The plans of her architect lover
A tattoo of a boarded-up house
An ink door that belonged to another
Pet Politics

Here’s one final song from The Natural Bridge.  I picked this lyric for one reason – it’s very cool.  ’nuff said.

My childhood hasn’t made good material either
mostly being a mulch of white minutes 
with a few stand out moments, 
popping tar bubbles on the driveway in the summer
a certain amount of pride at school
everytime they called it “our sun”
and playing football when the only play
was “go out long” are what stand out now
‘Self Portrait at 28′

This is not a Silver Jews song but an excerpt from David Berman’s poetry book Actual Air, published in 1999.  I love this collection of poems and ‘Self Portrait at 28‘ is a highlight.  Read the whole poem here, which is full of stunning imagery and witty observations.  I quite like the above video’s interpretation of some of the poem – I think they’ve done it well.

Well don’t believe in people who say it’s all been done
They have time to talk because their race is run
Advice To The Graduate

I’ll leave you with a lyric from ‘Starlite Walker‘, naturally I listened to this song a great deal upon leaving university.  Berman’s got a lot to answer for…

Whilst Berman rarely performs poetry readings any more, proof of his continued existance can be seen on his occasional blog Menthol Mountains.

02
Hope to hear from you soon, David!

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