“Like a message broadcast on an overpass,” David Berman once sang, “all my favorite singers couldn’t sing.” It wasn’t Berman’s forte either, and rather than try to sweeten his crooked croak, he took a deadpan approach to his music, which was consumed with classic literary themes: death, family, booze, escaping fate and finality. Berman, who died on Wednesday at 52, occupied a cultural midpoint between Townes Van Zandt and Raymond Carver, and his imagistic, lively, endlessly quotable lyrics always had a cleverness buoying the emotional struggles and glimpses of life at the margins. Here are 12 of his essential songs.
Silver Jews, ‘Advice to the Graduate’ (1994)
With shambling electric guitar, slippery drums and a guest vocal from Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, Berman’s friend and champion, this track from the first Silver Jews LP, “Starlite Walker,” summons optimism for a graduation speech delivered to whomever needs to hear it: “So get in some licks and hold your head up/And soon you’ll be drinking from that crystal cup.”
Silver Jews, ‘Trains Across the Sea’ (1994)
Melancholy piano gives way to a country-ish shuffle, including lap-steel guitar, on this “Starlite Walker” track. Its final line is a memorable image of alcohol’s familiar comfort and slow erosion: “In 27 years/I drunk 50,000 beers,/and they just wash against me/like the sea into a pier.”
Silver Jews, ‘Pet Politics’ (1996)
The chorus is a goof (“You never know when your pet will go”), but the rest of this staggering-about rock song from “The Natural Bridge” is a plea for protection from nature and man: “Please guard my bed,” Berman sings several times, as the song dies out.
Silver Jews, ‘Random Rules’ (1998)
The best-known Silver Jews song opens their beloved third album, “American Water,” with a deadpan wink: “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.” A maudlin horn keeps Berman company as he struggles to accept the way lives are buffeted by chaos and loss.
Silver Jews, ‘People’ (1998)
A musical changeup from “American Water,” complete with wah-wah guitar and an almost-disco backbeat, as well as an emotional digression: Carried away by the giddy music, Berman gazes out his city window and coos, “It’s sunny and 75/It feels so good to be alive.”
Silver Jews, ‘Tennessee’ (2001)
“We’re gonna live in Nashville and I’ll make a career/Out of writing sad songs and getting paid by the tear,” Berman drawls in a sardonic meditation on stasis and the South, in which he cajoles a woman to join him in Tennessee by telling her, “You’re the only 10 I see.”
Silver Jews, ‘Punks in the Beerlight’ (2005)
Getting into a subculture is easier than getting out of one, Berman knew. He describes a drunk pair of lovers who are regretting their lost lives as they stagger through a rock club. The narrator knows the allure of getting even more lost than ever, and that late-night feeling when “You wanna smoke the gel off a fentanyl patch.” At the end of the song, only love is keeping the couple upright.
Silver Jews, ‘How Can I Love You (if You Won’t Lie Down)’ (2005)
What’s clearest here, amid the amateur-country guitar and banjo licks, is Berman’s pure-hearted commitment to country songwriting tropes and to cracking jokes like they’re beers. The track is from his 2005 album “Tanglewood Numbers.”
Silver Jews, ‘Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer’ (2008)
A brisk tempo and barrelhouse piano gird this brief, almost giddy story — from the final Silver Jews album, “Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea” — about a young man’s ardor for a voracious gal who incites him into crimes. It’s a noir miniature, and Berman somehow gracefully rhymes “lard” and “fired.”
Silver Jews, ‘San Francisco B.C.’ (2008)
A crackling fish story in which the narrator loses his girl to a guy who “moves a lot of concrete on the QVC,” then gets hired by a bar owner to rob an apartment, only to discover, after the robbery and a brawl, that his new boss — nah, that would ruin it.
Purple Mountains, ‘That’s Just the Way That I Feel’ (2019)
Berman mothballed Silver Jews in 2009, then came back this summer under a new moniker and with a new dedication — the songs are fuller and closer to rock ’n’ roll, the vocals less tossed away, and the lyrics flood out of him. “I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion/Day to day, I’m neck and neck with giving in,” he sings, but he sounds hearteningly, hilariously committed to holding out.
Purple Mountains, ‘Darkness and Cold’ (2019)
Last month, in a Reddit AMA, Berman cited this as the best song he’d ever written, so take it as a distillation of what he wanted to say: a plain story, with no jokes or tricks, about a man whose wife has left him, and left him with nothing. In real life, Berman and his wife had split up, he confirmed. “Conditions I’m wishing weren’t taking control,” he sings in this farewell. “Darkness and cold, darkness and cold.”
David Renard contributed reporting.
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