Music

How Indie Cult Hero David Berman Disappeared For A Decade — And Then Returned, Better Than Ever

David Berman

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Back in January, I received a rather surprising email from a man who I knew but had never met. “More often than I’d like to admit, I search Twitter for ‘Silver Jews,’ looking for a shot of courage,” it began. “More than once you were my signal to keep going.”

It was David Berman, an indie legend who had dissolved Silver Jews, one of the most respected bands of the ’90s, in 2009. After that, he promptly disappeared from the public eye. No social media presence, no new music. For many years, there was hardly even a sign of old music — until 2017, you couldn’t stream any of Silver Jews albums, and finding physical copies often required scrounging around at used record stores.

A literate, laconic singer-songwriter who was once associated with the lo-fi scene spearheaded by his friend and occasional bandmate Stephen Malkmus, Berman had over the course of six Silver Jews albums evolved into an artist who resembled the great rock bards of previous generations, like Lou Reed, Townes Van Zandt, and Kris Kristofferson. He was the rare lyricist whose words could stand apart from songs as prose. Every line was quotable, and yet also fit inside fractured narratives shaped by substance abuse, loneliness, and an eccentric outsider’s point of view.

Most artists fade in prominence over time. But Berman had seemingly gone out of his way to make the world forget about him. In the modern music business, stepping away just for a year or two might prompt the media to assume that you’ve either died or lapsed into complete irrelevance. Berman meanwhile maintained near radio silence for a decade.

But for those who love his music, he’s always remained a romantic figure, the quintessential legendary recluse, a textbook underground hero. I’ve interviewed various indie artists over the years who have tried to reach him when visiting his one-time home of Nashville. Usually, to no avail. Berman, it seemed, had little interest in engaging with the outside world.

But now, here he was, in my inbox, looking for some minor validation. I had tweeted a few times about American Water, his 1998 masterwork that signaled an embrace of stoner-friendly country rock. Also, I had quoted one of his lyrics in my first book. (“In 27 years I’ve drunk 50,000 beers,” from the song “Trains Across The Sea.”) Berman told me he had some new songs, if I was interested in hearing them. Naturally, I was flattered, but also trepidatious. Berman hadn’t put out an album since Silver Jews’ 2008 swan song, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, a sinewy psychedelic country record that sounded positively huge compared with smaller scale ’90s records like 1994’s Starlite Walker and 1996’s The Natural Bridge. Would Berman still have the ability to write songs that are artfully composed and yet sound extemporaneous, like a guy telling you his life story over a Miller High Life at 1 a.m. in novelistic detail?

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