David Berman may not have understood the great mysteries of life, but he got about as close anyone who tried. The singer-songwriter and poet, who passed away yesterday afternoon at the age of 52, saw something about the world that the rest of us couldn’t.
Midway through “Pet Politics,” from his great 1996 album, The Natural Bridge, he contradicts the Bible by telling the story of what really happened in the garden of Eden, with the candor of someone reading you the specials at a diner. He would convey a piece of ancient wisdom about earthly things, and cut it with a corny pun – “And I want to be like water if I can, ‘cause water doesn’t give a damn.” He had a gift like no one else.
Across six albums with his band Silver Jews and a book of poetry entitled Actual Air, Berman built a following throughout the 1990s and 2000s through his profound prose, which used plain language to convey universal truths. Working alongside a number of friends and indie-rock contemporaries like Stephen Malkmus, Bob Nastanovich, and William Tyler, he made a handful of classic albums, dry and plaintive yet filled with sublime melodies. While he never reached the heights of acclaim and occasional mainstream spillover that his occasional band mates did with their other group, Pavement, he amassed a fanbase that held his music as a shared treasure among indie devotees, building a cult following as one of the best songwriters in the genre.
His brusque voice became his calling card; “All my favorite singers couldn’t sing,” he noted on “We Are Real” from 1998’s American Water. With a single line, he could open up an entire world of memories and sorrows. You’ll see much writing this week about the first line to Natural Bridge opener “How to Rent a Room,” which exclaims, “No, I don’t really want to die, I only want to die in your eyes” and how it conveyed the deep sorrow he was often known for. But it’s the next line, “I'm still here below the chandelier, where they always used to read us our rights,” that was an even deeper indicator of what made him special: In one lyric, he told a layered and complex story that most songwriters spent whole albums trying to get to.
For all his wit and cutting barbs, Berman was far from a cruel writer. His words encompassed the totality of human behavior, shining compassion on the figures he wrote about, pointing any derision inward when pointing at all. If he was bitter, it was because he saw the world for what it was, and had difficulty finding hope. His songs often carried tropes of country music (or the popular ‘90s alt-country subgenre), with his stark storytelling and pastoral drawl, but he most embodied country in how his songs were deeply American, written for a land of endless highways filled with faceless towns that had been pillaged by wealthy men who lived in ivory towers. “How’d you turn a billion steers into buildings made of mirrors?” he asked on The Natural Bridge’s “Dallas” — one of his angriest songs, one about the city where his father lived.
David Berman’s father Richard cast a looming shadow over David’s work, and the way he perceived his own legacy. He was a corporate lobbyist for the restaurant and oil & gas industry with a storied reputation, who made enemies out of groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, The Humane Society of the United States, and many other human-rights and environmental organizations. When David walked away from his music career in 2009, he revealed this in a blog post that said his band was “too small of a force to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused.” According to a recent Washington Post interview, David was in talks with HBO to produce a series exposing the work his father had done but walked away when they offered to buy the rights from him and deny him input. David was concerned they would turn his father into a Don Draper-style charming antihero. (When I read the news of his death, I was watching an episode of HBO’s Succession and I wondered what David would have thought of the show.)
This past year, David returned from his self-imposed exile with a new band name and a new self-titled album, Purple Mountains. The LP was stark and harsh, an often-brutal recounting of a separation from his wife Cassie, his mother’s death, and the alienation of the people in his life — “Lately, I tend to make strangers wherever I go/ Some of them were once people I was happy to know,” laments a representative lyric from lead single “All My Happiness Is Gone.” He granted interviews for the first time in a decade and booked a tour, his first in a decade, which he explained was to pay off his credit card debts, with a bluntness that sounded like a joke even if you knew it was true.
Purple Mountains found him as sharp as ever, filled with hilarious musings and lines that would break your heart, placed within seconds of each other. While songs like “That’s Just The Way I Feel” recounted his recent history with a smirk, he didn’t hold back on the hardships he had faced (“The life I live is sickening, I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion”). He had written one of the most tender and beautiful songs of his career with the gentle and moving “Snow is Falling in Manhattan.” His last song, “Maybe I’m The Only One For Me,” centered on a deep loneliness before arriving at a hard-earned hope and resolution to move forward with self-acceptance, ending his brilliant comeback on a note of knowing grace. The album was his fourth or fifth classic, depending on who you ask, and received rave reviews from publications like Pitchfork and Spin and high-profile interviews in outlets like The Washington Post and The Ringer — granting him the attention that had been overdue from his run with The Silver Jews.
The album was a bold reminder of Berman’s singular voice, and of just how missed his perspective had been in his decade-long hiatus. In a revealing interview with the Kreative Kontrol podcast, one where David broke down each song on Purple Mountains, he offered some insight as to why he wanted to return to music after a decade of silence. “Honestly, I always had the feeling that older musicians stuck around too much and used too many resources and that I could get out of the way and make room for someone else,” David told host Vish Khanna. “Then after, when I started writing songs again, I didn’t really feel like anyone else had come along and done the exact same thing to me.”
David Berman was a gracious soul, not just in his writing, but in his interactions with his fans. He rarely toured, famously embarking on a single long one towards the end of Silver Jews’ run in 2008, and according to anecdotes, took the time to greet and talk to his fans after each stop. I hope he found solace in the people telling him stories of how much his music meant to them. I’d like to think that he understood that the impact he made will have a legacy that long outlasts the sins of his father, even if he didn’t believe that he could overcome them.
In the wake of his death, friends like Malkmus and Nastanovich paid tribute online, as well as a number of musicians from John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats) and Aaron Dessner (The National) to Sadie Dupuis (Speedy Ortiz & Sad 13) and Michelle Zauner (Japanese Breakfast), who posted about how much his music meant to them and influenced their own work. Scores of fans took to tributes online that were often just collection of his lyrics, the words that meant so much to so many. It almost does a disservice to his memory, because as moving as the words were, it was the context of the songs, the way he sang them, and the way the stories and melodies and music all came together to grasp at a truth that most spend their whole life trying to find.
In spite of that, I’d like to point to a personal favorite, one that takes even more poignancy in the wake of yesterday’s news. Few things I could write seem as appropriate a tribute as his own words, so I’ll leave you with a lyric from “Death of an Heir of Sorrows” — the closing track to his 2001 album Bright Flight, which David wrote about the death of his friend Robert Bingham, who died of a heroin overdose in 1999.
“I have not avoided certainty
It has always just eluded me
I wish I knew
I wish I knew for true
I wish I had a rhinestone suit
I wish I had a new pair of boots
But mostly I wish
I wish I was with you
We'd never been promised there will be a tomorrow
So let's just call it the death of an heir of sorrows
The death of an heir of sorrows”
-David Berman, 1967 – 2019