David Berman’s music sounds like a reason not to die. His music, mostly as the force behind the Silver Jews and just this year as Purple Mountains, came through depression and substance abuse.
“In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection,” he sang on “Random Rules,” one of the Silver Jews’ most memorable songs, capturing a central sensibility about Berman’s own life and art. It never blinked in the face of struggle, but it carried on with warmth nonetheless. It was a reason not to die.
Berman, born in Williamsburg in 1967, attended the University of Virginia in the late 1980s, and the music part of his life came together. He played with Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich (who eventually would form Pavement, a band decidedly not the progenitor of the Silver Jews, though the inverse might be arguable).
Berman was an influential presence at WTJU during a time that helped shape the station’s direction.
That time was mostly prelude. In 1989, Berman and his friends formed the Silver Jews, mixing lo-fi indie aesthetic with a certain looseness; the early recordings sound like guys just out of college kicking off the 1990s. As the band moved forward, Berman drew in some broader sounds, incorporating country-rock to support his distinctive baritone. He further developed his writing skills at the University of Massachusetts (he released a volume of poetry, “Actual Air,” in 1999), and the band became something remarkable.
The first proper full-length, “Starlite Walker,” begins with “Introduction II” and Berman singing, “Hello, my friends.” As unusual as his writing could be, that sort of invitation persisted. The group released six albums from 1994 to 2008, peaking with 2005’s “Tanglewood Numbers.” That album came out of a tumultuous period in which Berman’s depression and addiction nearly took his life (he attempted suicide). Berman wrote more directly, and the album came with studio polish, but it took a pleasure in its own existence. The world was no less bleak, but Berman’s presence — his humor, his vision — found full freedom in it.
Unusual for Berman, his band played live after the release of the album. The tour brought him back to Charlottesville to a sellout crowd at the Satellite Ballroom.
On stage, he cut an unusual figure, obviously uncomfortable, and with a music stand and lyric sheet to guide him. His wife, Cassie, provided a relaxing balance as bassist, and the Silver Jews gathered energy as the night went on. The concert closed with the power of “There Is a Place” and its repetition of “I saw God’s shadow on this world” and “I took a hammer to it all.” David Berman as presented that night: both an awkward, friendly artist and a transcendent poet willing to smash it all.
In 2008, the Silver Jews returned with “Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea,” a mature look at the world. Berman’s pessimism remained intact even as he kept the fun going. The album wasn’t a shock, but the follow-up was: Berman retired from music in 2009, ostensibly to bring justice to the world in response to his estranged father’s life.
In a message board post at the time, Berman explained, “The desire for [justice] actually burns.”
The decade off wasn’t kind to Berman, as he suffered through not only divorce but also the death of his mother. Berman returned to recording as Purple Mountains, backed by the band Woods. The self-titled album from earlier this year stands as one of his finest pieces of writing. The album comes from a place of deep despair, but pushes through it. Nearly every line from the album is quotable, particularly those from “That’s Just the Way I Feel.” Not only was the album a critical and artistic success, but it prompted Berman to plan another heavily anticipated tour.
Then, on Wednesday, Berman’s label Drag City announced that he had passed away that day, with no further details released.
In looking through Berman’s biography and discography, it’s easy to see the troubled parts, particularly the deep depression that covers so much of it. As a songwriting legacy, though, Berman shouldn’t be remembered as a tortured artist, but a diligent one.
He was more a poet than a rock star; his writing came from intense work. He’s spoken about the amount of material he throws away. His lyrical success and influence come from his ability to move every word into place, regardless of whether he takes a direct or oblique approach. For decades, Berman worked to ensure that every phrase he put out was just right, a point obscured by the ease of his delivery and his consistent success rate.
In “Introduction II,” Berman moved from greeting his friends to a final concern: “My friends, don’t you know that I never want this minute to end? And then it ends.”
Reports of Berman as a wonderful friend abound, and the evidence of his remarkable artistry stands tall across his recordings and his poetry. For those who knew him and those who simply listened to him, we never wanted this minute to end, either.