After a 10-year hiatus, acclaimed poet and former Silver Jews frontman David Berman has returned to music with his new project Purple Mountains. And while absence may have made the heart grow fonder for old fans, for many, Purple Mountains is no doubt their first experience with Berman.
Despite taking a decade off, Berman has amassed an impressive songbook over the last 30 years, particularly with his band Silver Jews. Formed in New York in 1989 by Berman and college friends and future Pavement members Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, Silver Jews were an indie rock tour de force. Lineup changes, personal turmoil, and strange touring practices have come to help define a band that has featured a who’s who of indie rock royalty. But at the heart of Silver Jews is Berman and his affecting songs. Here are 15 essential Silver Jews songs, which you can hear via our Spotify playlist below.
Read our recent feature on Berman and Purple Mountains here.
15. Candy Jail
The only entry from the final Jews album Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea to make this list. “Candy Jail” finds Berman in a literal candy jail with “peanut brittle bunk beds and marshmallow walls,” where “the warden keeps the data on your favorite brands.” In the vein of 50s radio rock complete with Cassie Berman’s doo wop-esque backing vocals, “Candy Jail”s sweet, lighthearted coating hides a salty center however, as the song is ultimately about “the shame of a life of constant consumption,” according to Berman. With shoutouts to Merle Haggard and Roger Miller in the lyrics, it is one of Berman’s best pop songs.
Standout lyric: “True love doesn’t come around anymore than fate allows on a Monday in Fort Lauderdale.”
14. I’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You
Many Silver Jews songs are based on the real-life relationship between Berman and his wife and bassist Cassie. Berman hit a rough patch during 2003, and attempted to take his own life by overdosing. So 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers ended up being a comeback not just for the band but for Berman himself, who seems to be realigning his priorities here. “Baby won’t you take this magnet / and maybe put my picture back on the fridge?” Berman pleads at the song’s opening. The music video features him and Cassie walking arm in arm through a crowded market.
Standout lyric: “Like a brown bird nesting in a Texaco sign, I’ve got a point of view.”
13. Smith and Jones Forever
“Are you honest when no one’s looking?” Berman inquires to the listener over an off kilter, bluesy, opening riff that would prove to be one of the band’s most enduring. The second track on American Water, “Smith and Jones Forever” was the final song Silver Jews ever played together live. It chronicles the execution of Smith and Jones, two outlaws know only by their aliases. It’s a story of the nameless and downtrodden who “walk the alleys in duct tape shoes.” In the end Smith and Jones don’t escape their fates, but their spirits live on as “when they turn on the chair, something’s added to the air.” A fitting end for the song and for the band.
Standout lyric: “Oh come let us adore them, California overboard. When the sun sets on the ghetto all the broken stuff gets cold.”
12. The Wild Kindness
“The Wild Kindness” has some of the best imagery of any Berman songs, but I could never piece together what the song was about. So I emailed Berman and asked him. He explained that the song represents “an image of goodness laid over nature, an assurance that it is okay to die; the universe is inherently good.” Word. Perhaps equally as scintillating is Stephen Malkmus’s masterful guitar solo. Berman once likened he and Malkmus’s relationship to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, explaining that Malkmus relished being able to focus on the lead guitar and leave the songwriting to David. It’s true that American Water definitively stands next to anything else Malkmus has done in terms of guitar work.
Standout lyric: “Four dogs in the distance, each stands for a kindness. Bluebirds lodged in an evergreen altar.”
Berman has always had a penchant for combining powerful imagery with unabashed sentimentality. But perhaps no song highlights this tightrope act better than “Tennessee”. The beautiful opening stanza is one of his most elegant: “I saw the river playing in the valley / rushing ‘round the bend and skippin’ stones / I saw the meadow wobble in the moonlight / I’ve come to find my girl and take her home.” But from there the song builds and explodes into without a doubt the cheesiest chorus Berman ever wrote “Marry me / leave Kentucky / come to Tennessee / ‘Cause you’re the only ten I see.” This ode to his future home is as clever and funny as it is heartfelt, wherein Berman proposes to his wife, and imagines a future where they live happily in Nashville and he has a career “writing sad songs and getting paid by the tear”.
Standout lyric: “Punk rock died when the first kid said: punk’s not dead. You know Louisville is death. We’ve got to up and move. Because the dead do not improve.”
After having a mental breakdown during the recording of the second Silver Jews album, The Natural Bridge, Berman decided to scrap the classic lineup and opted to reform the band from scratch. Other than Berman himself, the only other person left over from the original sessions was New Radiant Storm King singer/guitarist Peyton Pinkerton. Pinkerton’s swirling, idiosyncratic, lead guitar riffs loosely anchor Berman’s poetic musings throughout “The Natural Bridge”. And “Dallas” for its part is one outlandish musing after another — “We saw B.B. King on General Hospital”, “Is it true your analyst was a placekicker for the Falcons?” Berman spent his high school years living just outside of Dallas, Texas, and paints a jaded, dualistic image of the city. “Oh Dallas you shine with an evil light,” Berman laments before conceding his affection for the nightlife. “Poor as a mouse every morning / rich as a cat every night / some kind of strange magic happens / when the city turns on her lights.”
Standout lyric: “I passed out on the 14th floor; the CPR was so erotic.”
9. Punks in the Beerlight
I’ve already mentioned Berman’s habit of pairing his cheesiest lyrics with his most profound. But his best trick is the disarming ability to make the cheesiest lyrics your favorite. “Punks in the Beerlight” is the first track off Tanglewood Numbers, continuing Berman’s tradition of strong album beginnings. The opening guitar riff shimmers like a midsummer sunbeam reflecting off a can of Coors Light. “Where’s the paper bag that holds the liquor? / Just in case I feel the need to puke / If we’d know what it’d take to get here / would we have chosen to?” Berman’s confident vocal delivery immediately sets the tone for one of the Silver Jews most self assured records. Throw in a nod to fellow subversive artist (and infamous alcoholic) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and you’ve got the best (and maybe only?) rock song David Berman ever wrote.
Standout lyric: “So you wanna build an altar on a summer’s night. You wanna smoke the gel off a fentanyl patch. Aintcha you heard the news? Adam and Eve were jews. And I always loved you to the max.”
8. New Orleans
Haunting chords and the low droning of Stephen Malkmus’ voice kick off “New Orleans,” the seventh track off Silver Jews debut LP Starlite Walker. “I’m scared I swear of you,” Berman sings with an uneasiness that perfectly compliments the lyric. Full of dry wit and offering some of Berman and Malkmus’ best flat duets, “New Orleans” is one of the strongest early Jews tracks. The fact that the bridge sounds like a series of opportunistic musical mistakes stumbling back into the verse only adds to its ragged charm. The outro features the duo singing in unison “We’re trapped inside the song / where the nights are so long,” repeating at 3:15 everytime you press play, like ghostly memories in purgatory.
Standout lyric: “There is a house in New Orleans. Not the one you heard about, I’m talking ‘bout another house.”
7. We Are Real
What starts off as simple directions quickly becomes a series of inquiries about the nature of art and creativity. “We Are Real” is the seventh song from American Water, and it reads like a manifesto for the band. “We’ve been raised on replicas of fake and winding roads / But day after day up on this beautiful stage / we’ve been playing tambourine for minimum wage / But we are real.” This song came out one year before Napster would turn the music industry upside down. But the natural existence of art and beauty outside of monetization, whether it’s singing birds or roadside graffiti, is the realness Berman speaks of. “Won’t soul music change now that our souls have turned strange?” Berman crucially asks the listener.
Standout lyric: “Repair is the dream of a broken thing. Like a message broadcast on an overpass, all my favorite singers couldn’t sing.”
6. Black and Brown Blues
A breezy, Dead-esque four chord ballad ruminating on loneliness and indecision, “Black and Brown Blues” is ground zero for the alt-country proclivities that would help define the band’s sound. The third song on The Natural Bridge, boasts some of Berman’s most euphonious lyrics. “Fake IDs and honey bees / a jagged skyline of car keys / I never knew a bird could fly so low.” Matt Hunter’s bass provides a captivating sense of tension, tumbling and thundering around the guitar. And sound engineer and mixer Michael Deming’s keys lend the song some extra honky tonk credibility. Throw in maybe the best one-liner of Berman’s career (see below), and it’s easy to see why this track is such a fan favorite.
Standout lyric: “When there’s trouble I don’t like running. But I’m afraid I’ve got more in common with who I was than who I am becoming.”
5. Horseleg Swastikas
Even for a band known for writing sad songs, this is Silver Jews at their saddest. Berman describes this song as the antipode to “The Wild Kindness,” an image of evil laid over nature, positing that the universe is inherently evil. “I’m drunk on a couch in Nashville / in a duplex near the reservoir / and every single thought is like a punch in the face / I’m like a rabbit freezing on a star.” Berman’s voice sounds particularly battered and miserable here, like he’s reliving the lyrics through the performance. But what really makes the case for this being in the top 5 is the cathartic and somewhat nihilistic chorus, one of the band’s most memorable.
Standout lyric: “And I wanna be like water if I can — cause water doesn’t give a damn.”
4. Trains Across The Sea
Though not technically the album’s opening track, “Trains Across The Sea” was the first glimpse of Silver Jews as a full band in (somewhat) high fidelity. The second track off Starlite Walker kicks off with a piano drunkenly dancing around a simple two chord picking pattern. “Troubles / No trouble / on the line,” Berman flatly croons. College radio would never be the same. Silver Jews were never a band that prided themselves in tight arrangements. In fact some of the songs on “Starlite Walker” sound barely rehearsed. But its best tracks are among the best Berman ever wrote, and it captures the spirit of the early band perfectly. Formed by three college friends that passed the time making dissonant recordings and occasionally leaving them on Kim Gordon’s answering machine, Silver Jews would come to be the moniker of David Berman. But in June of 1994 it was a band of kids reuniting and finally taking themselves seriously.
Standout lyric: “Half hours on earth — what are they worth? I don’t know.”
3. How To Rent A Room
“How To Rent A Room,” is the first song off The Natural Bridge and a reintroduction. With founding members Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich departing, Silver Jews ceased to be a group and instead became one man’s vision. Interesting that Berman’s first statement of intent is to disappear. “No I don’t really wanna die / I only wanna die in your eyes,” Berman sings as the clang of Rian Murphy’s drums kick in. Fans have speculated the song could be about his infamous father, lobbyist Richard “Dr. Evil” Berman, but according to Berman it’s actually addressed to a former lover. “The Natural Bridge” is the most literate Jews record, and in terms of songwriting probably the strongest overall. More importantly it brushed off any ridiculous notions that Silver Jews were a “Pavement side project” and cemented David Berman as one of the most promising, emerging voices in songwriting.
Standout lyric: “You’re a tower without the bells. You’re a negative wishing well.”
2. Random Rules
“In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.” Silver Jews don’t really have a hit song, but if they did, this would be it. The first track off American Water is in many ways the quintessential Jews tune. An underdog anthem about surrendering to chaos, “Random Rules” showcases Berman’s endearingly lowbrow poetics —“I know that a lot of what I say has been lifted off the men’s room wall / maybe I’ve crossed the wrong rivers and walked down all the wrong halls” — and features one of the best guitar solos of Stephen Malkmus’ career. The music video mostly went under the radar, but the song has endured for years (as of the writing of this article “Random Rules” has twice the traffic as any other Silver Jews song on Spotify). “The Natural Bridge is me finding out that random rules and I can’t handle it. It’s too painful that that’s the way life is. And then in American Water I’m trying to re-say it again, to someone else, after having accepted it,” Berman said of the song in a 2008 interview with The Washington Post.
Standout lyric: “Broken and smokin’ where the infrared deer plunge in the digital snake. I tell you they make it so you can’t shake hands when they make your hand shake.”
1. Pretty Eyes
“Pretty Eyes” ends where “How To Rent a Room” begins — lost in the eyes of another. “The final words are so hard to devise / I promise I’ll always remember your pretty eyes.” Bookending what’s for my money the best Silver Jews album, The Natural Bridge, “Pretty Eyes” is forward-looking but steeped in bittersweet nostalgia. “All houses dream in blueprints / our houses dream so hard / outside you can see my shoeprints / I’ve been dreaming in your yard.” In an interview with Stereogum, Berman recalls being very nervous before recording the track, his first time ever recording a song solo acoustic. “The strings bit into my fingers,” he said. “There was something about that song that seemed dignified, and maybe even noble. It’s in the form of a soliloquy.” Amazingly, against his own expectations, Berman nailed the song within a few takes.“Watching him make the performance of ‘Pretty Eyes’ was like watching a man who was being haunted by ghosts while he was singing,” Rian Murphy said in the same article. The equally haunting E chord outro is one of the most cathartic musical moments ever put to record.
Standout lyric: “Everybody wants perspective from a hill. But everybody’s wants can’t make it past the windowsill.”
Honorable Mentions: “Blue Arrangements,” “Sleeping is the Only Love,” “Death of an Heir of Sorrows“