The Silver Jews is a band led by singer-songwriter-poet David Berman. In existence with varying personnel since 1990, formed in Hoboken, New Jersey, the Silver Jews has its sole constant in Berman. He is a singer in the same sense that Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, or Allen Ginsberg is a singer. Vocalizing in a flat, nasal monotone, speaking his lyrics as much as singing them, Berman isn't American Idol's idea of a star, and all the more reason to like him for that. But a flat voice and poetic imagery can get you either neglected or as overrated as Nick Cave or Kristofferson. Berman navigates a cozy middle ground on his new album with his band the Silver Jews, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, recorded in Nashville. It's is sort of country-rock, sort of art-rock. It's sure as hell not (feh) spoken-word; neither are his performances of the tunelessness-as-a-sign-of-integrity sort in the manner of James McMurtry.
Before I go any further, let me remind/recommend Berman’s 1999 poetry collection Actual Air. His publisher was probably glad to get the money-quote (ha!) from Billy Collins for the back cover, but close readers will note that Berman's conversational grandness is closer to a contemporary with an equal passion for music, the mighty Mark Halliday, than Collins. As a print poet, Berman deploys his wordplay with poignant sincerity. As sung poetry, the lyrics on Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea are more than poignant and/or sincere. They’re also willfully obscure and philosophical (typical song title: "What Is Not But Could Be If"), and occasionally simple and direct to the point of abstraction. (No, the song called "Open Field," is not, as I first assumed, some sort of Bermanesque homage to Charles Olsen's gang—it's an adaptation of some lyrics by an obscure-to-me Japanese musician and artist, Tori Kudo.)
But one thing "Open Field" and Berman’s own songs on this album suggests is the magical, chimerical idea that anyone can make music as forthright and unadorned as this. Berman emphasizes this notion by including drawings of the chords he used to create this album, adding the note, "Anyone can play these songs." No, David, not anyone; only some Silver Jews.
Among whose number is Berman’s wife, Cassie, who also plays bass, and who provides the right vocal notes of plaintiveness on "Suffering Jukebox," a deceptively simple song with the brilliant notion of assigning human feelings to an old jukebox filled with sad country songs. Rarely has the use of the pathetic fallacy in pop music been more precisely pleasurable, and I like way Berman puns on the phrase about the jukebox "breaking down."
A number of compositions on Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea are big, knotty story-songs, chiefly "San Francisco, B.C.," a version of the Summer of Love if it were re-told by a lower-depths novelist such as David Goodis or Charles Willeford. Another garrulous ramble, "Aloysius Bluegrass Drummer," concerns the title character’s raucous involvement with a tough customer of a woman named Brick Butterfly. David Berman carries both his poetic and country music influences lightly, quoting a phrase from Emily Dickinson in that song as casually and appropriately as he does one from Roger Miller, the songwriter of "King of the Road," among many other, lesser-know great songs.
People who’ve followed Berman's career for more than a decade may be flummoxed by the paucity of autobiographical-seeming, or advice-containing, tunes that put the "cult" in cult-following for this artist. Some early reviews has ascribed this to Berman’s real-life sobriety and what appears to the outside world as a happy marriage. But while I think one of the pleasures of pop-culture criticism is in not merely analyzing the work at hand but bringing to the subject everything one knows about a performer's life and reputation, in this case, I'm going to chalk up the disarmingly uneven, fitfully majestic music on Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea—get an earful of "My Pillow Is The Threshold" immediately, please—to a mundane yet thoroughly admirable motive: a desire to be heard by as many people and as various an audience as possible.