David Berman Sang the Truth

The singer and poet of the band Silver Jews, dead at 52, made a career out of strange, beautiful insights.

A press image of David Berman
Drag City / David Berman

“All my favorite singers couldn’t sing,” David Berman once sang, in a line that I have probably, whether I’ve noticed myself doing so or not, referenced in my own mind every single day since I first heard it. So many great vocalists don’t sound pretty in the conventional sense, and to list their names is to also list the masters in whose lineage Berman, then of Silver Jews, absolutely worked: Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan. Berman wasn’t just pointing out his predecessors with that lyric, though. He was hinting at what gave them particular power. In that same verse, he goes: “Repair is the dream of the broken thing.” To internalize what he’s saying there is to hear whole swaths of music anew.

Berman’s art worked like this, permanently reshaping his listener’s experience of reality. His death at age 52 from yet-unsaid causes means the loss of a brilliant, distinct chronicler of the world, and he’ll be remembered in quotations: lines that make no sense, that describe the impossible, and that yet identify so much truth. Such as, “When something breaks it makes a beautiful sound.” Such as, “Half hours on Earth / What are they worth?” Such as, “More will be seen than will be understood.”

As for that singing of his: Berman used what the critic Robert Christgau once described as a “baritone monotone” for conversation, for recollection, for prophecy, and for other purposes that don’t entail scaling the octaves. Regardless of how abstract his words got, simple, inexorable melodies and rhyme schemes always anchored them. He said his latest album—his first in 10 years, released just weeks ago, and presumed to be the start of a new career chapter—aspired to sound like “standards,” but really that didn’t seem like a new goal for him. He flirted with sounding “classic,” with nods to Johnny Cash, even as he emerged in the knotty, diffident indie scene of the 1990s.

Berman was, in fact, closely associated with the knotty and diffident kings of that scene, Pavement. That influential art-punk band’s singer, Stephen Malkmus, and drummer, Bob Nastanovich, co-founded Silver Jews with Berman in 1989, and their early works were mysterious, lo-fi thrashers. Malkmus went on to cultivate a strain of lyric style that would define indie rock: goofy, associative Dada that seems to jeer at listeners hungry for take-home meaning. Berman would become the standard-bearer for another kind of writing that was rich with bleak insights about the world and cunning ways of phrasing them. He became the main creative driver for Silver Jews over time, even if Malkmus added scrappy yelps and squelchy guitars for the 1998 masterpiece American Water. Later pinnacles, such as 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers, trended more toward lushly orchestrated anthems brightened by the vocals of Berman’s wife, Cassie.

Berman’s existential barfly blues were never likely to be best-selling, but as acclaim accrued—including for his 1999 poetry book, Actual Air—he treated the possibility of stardom as toxic. Silver Jews didn’t tour until 2005, Berman gave interviews rarely, and in 2009 he announced that the band was “breaking up,” which was a strange move, given that he was the group’s one constant member. In a note posted then to his record label’s online forum, he explained that he was quitting music to pursue righting a great wrong: the influence of his father, Rick Berman, a notoriously cutthroat lobbyist for tobacco, oil, and other business interests. That note said his father’s work was Berman’s “gravest secret,” one “worse than suicide, worse than crack addiction,” both of which he’d been open about struggling with in the past.

Berman emerged this year with a new band name, Purple Mountains; a new set of songs; and new plans to tour. The album Purple Mountains is his most straightforward and easily decipherable work, with jaunty rhythms and sing-along choruses. It’s also crushingly sad and explicitly autobiographical, with clear references to his recent separation from his wife. I’ll admit that the first listen frightened me. “I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion / Day to day, I’m neck and neck with giving in,” he sang on the album’s opening verse, before the chorus went on to say, “The end of all wanting / Is all I’ve been wanting / And that’s just the way that I feel.”

Amid such airings of despair, Berman, as always, made pronouncements that felt eternal as soon as they entered the ear. “How long can a world go on with such a subtle god?” he asked in “Margaritas at the Mall,” the title of which hints at the quotidian-scale scenes that his theological questions were grounded in. On “Snow Is Falling in Manhattan,” a dreamy arrangement evoking the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” Berman seemed to veer toward sentimentality by describing New Yorkers settling in for a cozy, frosty night. Then came mention of “levels rising on the island”—climate change?—before a turn to something yet grander: what music accomplishes, whether its maker is still around or not. “Songs build little rooms in time,” he sang. “And housed within the song’s design / Is the ghost the host has left behind / To greet and sweep the guest inside / Stoke the fire and sing his lines.” It’s an observation that makes it hard to hear his work, or anyone else’s, in quite the same way again.