David Berman doesn't so much sing to you as speak to you. His songs—recorded under the name Silver Jews—un-spool like strands of proverbs, stringing up listeners with prophetic lines that enlighten more than entertain. "Playing music is my last and strongest link to the world," Berman wrote to me in an email. "Schopenhauer famously said a person must finally choose between loneliness and vulgarity. For now, I'm down with the vulgar again."
Meaning, he's taken to the road. In the 19 years since he formed Silver Jews—originally with ex-Pavement members Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich—Berman rarely brought his songs onstage, opting instead for loneliness. He chose to be, as Schopenhauer once wrote, "lonely on the heights." Alone, Berman could explore the heights of his potential. Alone with lyricism, poetry, and music, Berman could plunge into dark depths and resurface with great insights. "One has lived life carelessly/if he or she has failed to see/that the truth is not alive or dead/The truth is struggling to be said," Berman advises wearily on "What Is Not but Could Be If," from his exceptional new album Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea.
"It's a paraphrase of a Yiddish proverb: 'The truth neither lives nor dies; it struggles!'" Berman wrote. "What does it mean to me? That the struggle doesn't let up. That reaching for a life beyond pain and suffering is foolish, and mostly a drive to acquire superfluous luxuries that offer no protection."
Rather, Berman seems to embrace a Buddhist-inspired perspective, maintaining lucidity around pain so that he can free himself from outward distractions. When asked if embracing the heaviness of life allowed for great, meaningful art, he replied: "Heaviness isn't the metaphor I would use. I think of waking and sleeping. Sleep is what happens when you refuse to choose."
But Berman hasn't always chosen wakefulness. A few years back, he attempted suicide. So close to death, Berman found Judaism—something that has had a small but illuminating impact on his work: "There is a place past the blues I never want to see again... I saw God's shadow on this world," he affirms as if he's about to run out of air on "There Is a Place" from Silver Jews' fifth full-length Tanglewood Numbers.
Berman is a writer and a thinker first, a musician and a performer second. "Music gets blocked out rather fast," he wrote. "The language of Western rock music has a very limited vocabulary compared to the English language. Music doesn't get written as much as nudged into and under the words." Clearly Berman—who published a collection of poems entitled Actual Air in 1999—has a deep love for words, for the prospects they hold in examining life and in disseminating profundity. "Lyrics are never finished, just abandoned," he noted.
Which is not to say the music he makes is powerless next to his words. His Tennessee country twang, his enamored hooks, and his gritty, galloping rhythms sweep you up and carry you into his abstract stories of wit and wisdom, of wryness and vitality—it's as if the sounds take on the depth and spirit of the words that lead them.
While Berman is reluctant to perform live, to trade loneliness for vulgarity, he writes, "I get close to the audience, as close as I can." With work like his, he gets closer all the time.