A gruff voiced hipster poet with the soul of a honky-tonk barfly, Brooklyn and Nashville in equal measure, the late David Berman projected quiet, brooding charisma as the founder and reluctant frontman of Silver Jews. Formed in a Hoboken apartment turned makeshift recording studio in the early 1990’s with Berman’s college friends Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich — better known for their work in the essential indie rock band Pavement — Silver Jews transformed from a similarly lo-fi act flecked with twang into a sophisticated, poetic indie country band. While the non-Berman members rotated in and out, with Berman’s wife Cassie often on bass and backing vocals in the later years, the band defined itself not only through Berman’s often black clad figure (a self-conscious homage to Johnny Cash) but also the intelligent lyrics that set their songs apart from other alt country adjacent musicians of the late 1990’s and 2000’s. Indeed, Berman often identified more as a poet who happened to play music than a musician who wrote poetry… or even the type of songwriter who considered his lyrics a form of verse in their own right. In 2009, Berman announced the end of the band and an extended musical retirement, playing the final shows in an underground Tennessee cavern.
Generally considered the Silver Jews’ masterpiece, American Water was released in 1998. Berman composed and recorded the album in the middle of his struggles with substance abuse. The result was a heartfelt and haunting album, filled with the ghosts of past mistakes and present regrets. Despite this, Berman’s trademark lyrical wordplay manages to penetrate through the dark atmosphere.
The band’s name is a reference to the Silver Beetles, the original name of a band that dropped the Silver and changed the spelling on the second word. Berman was Jewish, though in typical style the song “Rebel Jew” is about Jesus Christ.
Perhaps fittingly, “Smith & Jones Forever” was the last song the group performed live.
Berman tragically took his own life on August 7, 2019, shortly after he had returned to making music with a new project, Purple Mountains. He had battled with depression and substance abuse for much of his life. Between the new album, two decades of music with Silver Jews, and his poetry, he leaves an important legacy as the most distinctive voice in indie rock. A uniquely American singer and songwriter, Berman could reference classic literature and quote football coaches with the same degree of sincerity and thoughtfulness.
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