If much can be inferred about a person’s life and inner state through a snapshot, then photos included on the two albums that currently serve as bookends to the Silver Jews catalog speak volumes about indie rock’s poet laureate, head Jew David Berman. Berman displays two very different grins in the shots. The first, taken in the early ’90s for his proper full-length debut, Starlight Walker, depicts a jolly — even naïve looking — Berman who is, we can surmise, smiling at his new future. The second, a live-on-stage photo taken for his recently released sixth Jews album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, sees a sort of weathered and appreciative smirk that suggests the challenges he has overcome — substance abuse, depression, suicide attempts.
The young man who wore the Starlight smile was much more a thinker, writer and wanderer than a professional, travelling musician. Indeed, that poet laureate title is at least partly earned: A collection of Berman’s poetry, Actual Air, was published by Open City in 1999; GQ thought it captured the “absurd American sublime” with lines like “I am not a cub scout seduced by Iron Maiden’s mirror worlds.” He didn’t tour in support of his first four albums, eventually setting out on the road in 2005, 13 years after the first peep from his band, the seven-inch Dime Map of the Reef. The band was created by Berman in 1989 with musicians who would become more well-known through their work with Pavement: guitarist Steven Malkmus and drummer Bob Nastanovich.
“I think not playing gave me time to develop in a way that people who develop their songwriting on stage and in public never get a chance to do,” Berman told NUVO. “I’m glad that things worked out this way; working with myself and learning, and revision, and not really getting any feedback aside from album reviews — which aren’t really feedback — just made me more informed.”
On Saturday, Oct. 11 the puzzle piece songwriter and his suited Jews will play their first ever Indianapolis show at Birdy’s Bar & Grill for what will be the band’s 106th show. Suffice it to say that the Lookout Mountain smirk came from a man with a new love: the road.
Album maker discovers his people
During those initial tour dates, Berman says that he quickly realized that, against his expectations, many of the folks singing along at his shows were half his age. Many in the crowd seemed to know all the words to his songs, singing along while Berman read the lyrics from a notebook. Before the Jews could make it to the 13th date of their initial scheduled jaunt they had more shows lined up. Many more. By the time the band returned home to East Nashville, Berman was a changed man.
“My mood has been very good the last year or two. When people tend to be happier they have more interest in the world around them. So the title [of the new record] is outward looking,” said Berman, whose 2001 album, Bright Flight, was an often awkwardly inward look at Americana heartache. “I got a real dose of the music I’d written up to Lookout Mountain when last touring; it was the first time I’d really played any of my songs. For the first 12 years of recording I would finish the album, then on the day it came out I’d never hear the songs again. So this was the first time I ever wrote an album after listening to what I’d done previously.
“The albums are a series, and the new one caps off the other five.”
Berman explains, “It brings things around again and shows me facing an audience, where I was [at first] coming out of the audience. I was the music fan for 10 years before I wrote a song, so I feel like I came out of the audience. I’ve always had that perspective, but I stopped paying attention to who the audience was [because I didn’t play for so long]. Now I’ve been going out into the crowd after the show. People like to hug and I love that because we just experienced something together.”
Writing for a new Jew era
Berman makes albums with very specific ideas and themes in mind, with each release acting as a snapshot of the writer at a different age. Where Bright Flight was a middle America record about living and loving (and more importantly, variety in where you live and what you love) and Tanglewood Numbers was comprised of children’s songs written for adults, Lookout Mountain is a love letter to youth. Stylistically, each record features a new collection of musicians assisting Berman, similarly formatted packaging, almost always 10 songs, lyrics that take time to settle in, minimal production and the kind of vocals you either love or, well, turn off as quickly as possible.
Berman’s latest record appears, at times, to be solely aimed at his younger fanbase. The songs are funny, full of energy and insights and, more than his first four albums and similar to Tanglewood, even somewhat accessible to unaccustomed ears. But don’t be fooled, Berman himself is still at the center of it all, claiming in interviews that the album works as an advice manual of sorts for young listeners, complete with Berman’s words backed by his own mishaps.
“After a show young people come up who seem to really have a relationship with the songs and tell me, you know, that they love me and things like that. And they probably might,” Berman said. “When I say I love a city or a crowd, that’s a different kind of love. A lot of other [bands] come to these cities and say they love the crowd and the city, but they’ve loved a lot of cities for a lot of years. Mine is a new love. It’s fresh, and I mean it.”