American Water dismisses much of the American dream. While many Americans were taught to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, to conquer, to climb, in the world of Silver Jews, climbing gets you nowhere. Rather, the way down reveals the way up. Twenty years ago, Silver Jews leader David Berman masterfully placed this paradox on display.
Raised by high profile lobbyist Rick Berman — widely deemed “Dr. Evil” by his many adversaries and described by 60 Minutes as the “arch enemy of other lobbyists and do-gooders” — David Berman did an about-face, earning a master’s in poetry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He refused to drink his father’s brand of American water.
“In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection,” Berman sings on iconic opener “Random Rules,” a harbinger of the album’s greatness. Casually delivered but urgently placed, the opening lines have been echoed countless times since Drag City released American Water on Oct. 20, 1998 — 20 years ago this Saturday. And while Berman deems “approaching perfection” as a liability, not an ideal, that doesn’t mean Silver Jews didn’t try.
Recorded at Brooklyn’s Rare Book Room by French producer Nicolas Vernhes (Animal Collective, Deerhoof, Dirty Projectors, etc.), American Water winds its way passed colorful characters, up and down beautifully slack arrangements, and through a labyrinth of staggering lines. Berman was a poet before he was a rock star. His lyrics are Silver Jews’ crown jewels, and track two, “Smith & Jones Forever,” levels like no other:
Got two tickets to a midnight execution
We’ll hitchhike our way from Odessa to Houston
And when they turn on the chair
Something’s added to the air
When they turn on the chair
Something’s added to the air forever
There are numerous stunning lines on “Smith & Jones Forever,” but this second-to-last stanza stills time. While “Random Rules” foreshadowed the path of American Water, through some meandering, fragmented interpretation, “Smith & Jones Forever” foreshadowed the path of David Berman. He references two strung-out characters, Smith & Jones, “their mustaches caked with airplane glue,” “holding up their trousers with extension cords.” Hilarious, ominous lyrics that can be absorbed in myriad ways, yet one thing’s certain: Berman fell into bad company for years. Drug-fueled and despondent, he nearly died in 2003.
But Berman escaped the maze of addiction. He got sober, devoted himself to Judaism, and smashed his reputation as a never-touring musician, embarking on Silver Jews’ first world tour in the mid aughts. Unlike Smith & Jones, the ineffable “something” he sings of on “Smith & Jones” was spared, at least for now, from “the air forever.”
American Water follows a similar arc. Like waking from some absurdly humorous nightmare to find yourself safe at home, the mood feels significantly lighter as “Night Society,” the instrumental third track, slowly crescendos. Ramshackle and relaxed, it reminds listeners Silver Jews began as an experimental art project.
Around 1990, Berman was a security guard at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, living with two University of Virginia college friends, Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nostanovich, and recording discordant tapes in their Hoboken, New Jersey, living room. While he currently avoids interviews, Berman spoke about this time in Michael Tully and Matthew Robison’s 2007 documentary, Silver Jew:
We were working at the Whitney with all this conceptual art, and we were learning about it … and so I thought, “Well let’s just make this record that looks like a record, and has song titles and everything, but the songs would be the ones we make at home that sound terrible.”
Walnut Falcons was tossed around as a potential band name before settling on Silver Jews.
Around this same time, Malkmus and Nostanovich formed Pavement, lesser heroes of the 1990s grunge movement, and thus began Silver Jews’ position as underdog to the underdog — forever labeled a Pavement side project due to Malkmus’ involvement. Regardless, to certain fans of imperfect rock, no album, Pavement or otherwise, ever bettered American Water.
But while Berman helmed American Water, Malkmus’ involvement was decisive, and on cleanup track “Federal Dust,” he’s front and center. “Not much water coming over the hill,” his cracked voice paired perfectly with Berman. The song is strongest in the context of American Water, its low water reference complementing the cresting fifth track, “People”:
People ask people to watch their scotch
People send people up to the moon
When they return, well there isn’t much
People be careful not to crest too soon
“When you listen to ‘People,’ you can hear these incredibly ecstatic observations about life, but it also says, ‘People be careful not to crest too soon,'” says Rian Murphy, one-time Silver Jews collaborator and longtime Drag City employee. “There’s a warning in it, as well as a wonder. That’s evident in all the Silver Jews records. Laughing and crying are both equally possible when you listen to the Silver Jews.”
Malkmus’ enjoyment is palpable on “People.” His wah-fueled guitar and vocals flit around Mike “Mighty Flashlight” Fellows’ loping bass, whose impeccable use of space shines throughout the album, and the sixteenth note arrangement by drummer Tim Barnes, whose artful hi-hat attack is an American Water highlight. Pavement had hit MTV by this point, and backing his old friend seemed to provide Malkmus respite from the pressures of playing frontman.
“When something breaks it makes a beautiful noise,” sing Berman and Malkmus on “Blue Arrangements,” American Water’s sloggy side A finale. The response soon arrives on kickoff side B song, “We Are Real”: “Repair is the dream of the broken thing.”
Silver Jews gave a distinct nod to country music, and “We Are Real” trots the listener down “fake and winding roads,” “up on this beautiful stage” where “we’ve been playing tambourine for minimum wage,” and onward to a beautifully contemplative room where everything is one:
My ski vest has buttons like convenience store mirrors
And they help me see
That everything in this room right now is a part of me
But the unity on “We Are Real” is soon offset by the divisiveness of “Send In The Clouds.” “Why can’t monsters get along with other monsters?” Berman asks alongside Malkmus. It’s a relevant question at any point in history.
“Nobody cares about a dead hooker,” sings Berman on “Like like the the the death” (though we all know he cares). “Looking like one, standing for many,” he continues. Addiction was gripping Berman during American Water, and a sense of solidarity with the downtrodden appears. He described the album’s sessions to David Malitz of the Washington Post in 2008:
“I was taking a lot of drugs at that time. And there were a lot of drugs in the studio. And all these things that would have horrified indie rock people, that I would never want them to know.”
The aimless wandering continues in “Buckingham Rabbit,” an upbeat song with superb, iniquitous lines: “I’d been lonely since she found Christ,” “the NASCAR blurred into porn,” “so the rent became whiskey.” In the fifth stanza, Berman sings:
At the back of the bar there’s a couch
Where the lonely people go and lie
They talk to the honky tonk psychiatrist
Into the wee hours of the night
“Buckingham Rabbit” pairs perfectly with the countrified, catchy, penultimate “Honk If You’re Lonely Tonight.” Berman sings:
I know a honky tonk where we can go
A booth in the back with the lights way down low
The jukebox is playing a sad melody
For heartbroken lovers just like you and me
The song’s a sunny breather before Chris Stroffolino’s brooding keyboard signals the heaviness of album closer “The Wild Kindness,” a shining shot of raw Berman talent. “Some power that hardly looked like power said I’m perfect in an empty room,” he sings. American Water began with Berman nearing perfection in “Random Rules” and ends with him discovering actual perfection in “The Wild Kindness.” “It is autumn, and my camouflage is dying.”
Twenty years ago, during the heart of autumn, Berman’s tangle of brokenness led us to a point where hiding was no longer an option, the game was up, and humble surrender revealed the path to perfect freedom. “I’m gonna shine out in the wild kindness.”
Silver Jews played their last show 333 feet beneath the ground inside Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, Tennessee, on Jan. 31, 2009 — “Smith & Jones Forever” was the final song of their final set. Winter had set in outside, but deep inside the earth it was 56 degrees. The weather was fine.
In the end, Berman didn’t come out on top, but I suppose that never really was the point anyway.