One early Silver Jews EP was named The Arizona Record, and another one, nearly a decade later, was Tennessee. After the singer David Berman’s death at age 52 last week, the albums that fans turned to included 1998’s American Water, with its lyrics about “Protestant thighs” and “blue, blue jeans,” and Purple Mountains, the self-titled debut of his new band, named for a commonly misheard line from “America the Beautiful.” That album’s songs mentioned New York City, Oregon, Chevrolet cars, and a “marketplace / In the wanting corner of a western state.”
Berman sang about America. He did not do this in addition to his other great themes—music, nature, beauty, death, drugs, disconnection—but rather as part of the same project. His songs could almost be described with the genre tag “Americana”; his life can’t be discussed apart from American political struggles. Parsing poetry as allusive and grammar-agnostic as his is never straightforward, but he said he wanted his music to be understood, and his take on America was plenty clear. Berman loved the nation’s sprawl and its myths, and he warned about the crushing solitude they created.
Born in Virginia and raised in Texas, Berman spent parts of his adulthood in Louisville and Nashville. Many of his onetime hometowns were mentioned in his songs—but not as much as he mentioned the idea of moving. “Sometimes I dream of Texas / Yeah, it’s the biggest part of me,” he sang on the first Silver Jews album, adding, “And the planes look like the sea at night / Oh, she wants to be so free.” Berman was paying tribute to a “rebel state” with those lines, but he was also pulling a typical move of his: pairing a vision of home with a pang of desire for escape. His lyrical obsession with place recalled the country artists whose music Berman evoked in his arrangements and singing style. But for him, location most often spelled dislocation. Places existed to be left behind.
Take 2001’s “Tennessee,” an uncharacteristically sweet-seeming take on country-western romance. The narrator courts a woman whose “doorbell plays a bar of Stephen Foster,” which is to say it plays 1800s minstrel tunes like “Oh! Susanna” or “Camptown Races.” He adds, “Her sister never left and look what it cost her,” and makes a plea for his beloved to migrate with him to Nashville, where he’ll start a music career. Here, too, was a story of home and not-home, of the settled being unsettling, and of flight as hope. “You know Louisville is death, we’ve got to up and move / Because the dead do not improve,” Berman sang. This perfect lyric was followed by a few more: “Goodbye users and suckers and steady bad-luckers / We’re off to the land of club soda unbridled / We’re off to the land of hot middle-aged women.”