David Cloud Berman could spend a lifetime on a lyric. Eternally his own worst critic, he had a reputation for blowing past deadlines, sabotaging studio sessions, and endlessly critiquing his catalog. “I’ve seen him get hung up on a single line for literally months,” Drag City president Dan Koretzky recalled after his passing in 2019. There are hours of recordings that sound like the stuff of legends (most intriguing to me is a failed collaboration between Berman, Dan Bejar, and Stephen Malkmus), reams of prose, an unfinished memoir and a screenplay that sit idle, never rising to the unreachable standards Berman set for himself.
It’s a bit of a strange blessing, in that context, to bear witness to anything Berman’s written at all. Each record from his ramshackle Silver Jews feels inherently significant because of the Sisyphean efforts to bring it into existence. But even with the rare material that made it to mastering, Berman was almost compulsively self-deprecating in his evaluations: The moderate success of the Jews’ debut Starlite Walker, a feat of friendship recorded with Pavement members (and old friends from UVA) Malkmus, Steve West, and Bob Nastanovich, was, in his mind, purely a reflection of hype. “I made a rule of crediting any positive feedback to Pavement,” he later told Stereogum. If Malkmus provided the guitar solos and the star power, Berman figured, the only thing he could attribute to himself was the writing; naturally, then, he obsessed over every word.
But of all his records, Berman saved his harshest criticism for 2001’s Bright Flight. Released 20 years ago this Saturday, his fourth album as Silver Jews is a winding, weird and wonderful exploration of romance and recklessness that never chooses between the two. It seems Berman felt, in retrospect, embarrassed by the life he had come to live at the time of its recording: He had moved into a house in Nashville, Tennessee, and began running with, as he put it, “crooks and prostitutes.” He lost several close friends and was battling active addiction the year of its release. Staying alive “wasn’t really feasible” at the time, he remembered later. Fittingly, the record opens with suicidal ideation cloaked in his warm, crackling croon: “And you got that one idea again/ The one about dying,” he sings on “Slow Education.” In a 2006 interview with Pitchfork, he called it the one line he’d love to change: “It’s just embarrassing to me. A lot of the things on Bright Flight, that’s where I feel most rawly exposed.”
And yet, 20 years after its release, Bright Flight holds hallowed space in the extended David Berman mythology precisely because of its vulnerability. It opens with near-silence, just the faintest note of wind dancing in the trees, the slightest hint of a cricket chirping outside. Then, a simple piano chord, and then, clear as the night sky, Berman’s voice, waxing poetic about the Book of Genesis. It lends an intimate air to the recording, as if the listener is sitting just a few feet away during some late night crowded around the piano in a living room. “You know, it sounds like the same five instruments in the room,” Berman said about Bright Flight. “You start getting emotional over it, that’s what I want.” Of all the records he’d go on to record as Silver Jews, it remains the most unadorned, the purest expression of his tortured writing. That tenderness was intentional: “It’s always gonna be focused on the words and I wanted a pretty band in the background.”
Bright Flight was an inevitability in the world of Silver Jews. After the disastrous attempts at recruiting Pavement members for the Jews’ sophomore record The Natural Bridge, which left Nastonovich holding the bag for $5,000 worth of studio time that Berman couldn’t pay up front, Berman decided on a poetically simple rhythm for the band’s future: He’d record every other album with Malkmus and company, leaving himself enough independence on the records in between to calm his paranoia about being a mislabeled Pavement side project. The band’s third record, 1998’s American Water, captured the camaraderie that Berman feared was lost after his meltdown a few years prior. One long, goofy jam session, it’s broadly known as their most commercially viable record, sunny and slyly brilliant. But, following the “zig zag method” Berman established for himself, he had to leave his Charlottesville collaborators behind for the follow up.
Berman loved proper nouns — Virginia’s “Albermarle Station,” the hike from Odessa to Houston on “Smith & Jones Forever” — but of all his releases, Bright Flight most clearly embodies a place. The twang in his voice, the drawl of the pedal steel, the honky tonks in its verses, they’re all part of Berman’s extended character study as the lonesome cowboy. And Nashville shaded in the gaps left by Pavement’s contributions: Members of local alt-country heroes Lambchop joined the collective, with Tony Crow on the piano, Paul Niehaus manning the omnipresent whine of the pedal steel guitar, and additional guitar and vocals from contemporary cosmic country artist William Tyler. “Let’s Not And Say We Did,” with its wild piano and rowdy gang vocals from the Lambchop crew, stands out as a particularly bright moment in an album largely built from dimly lit corners; it’s the closest the record gets to the kind of drunken revelry he’d achieved on American Water. Looking back in 2021, his use of synths and pedal steel guitar, like on the introduction to the instrumental song “Transylvania Blues,” feel like an obvious predecessor to the ambient country “cosmic pastoral” that Tyler and others have popularized in the past half-decade.
But there’s another voice, a female counterpart, on Bright Flight, which crops up more often, and more strikingly, than his Nashville companions — his soon-to-be-wife Cassie Marrett. She’s there on “Slow Education,” backing him up on the chorus, and in the group of voices on “Let’s Not And Say We Did.” And then there’s “Tennessee,” a gem buried eight tracks deep. (“The weirdest song is always song 7 or 8,” Berman once said.) “Tennessee” is the true introduction to Cassie as a permanent member of the Silver Jews. “Marry me, leave Kentucky,” he sings to his Kentucky-born then-girlfriend. She’s seen enough honky-tonks to know, she sings, that he’s man enough to make them “Mister, Misses Tennessee.” Cassie would remain a member of the Silver Jews from that point on, crucially helping to put Berman at ease on stages across the country for their very first tours in the ensuing years. Even after their divorce years later, it’s hard to listen to “Tennessee” and find anything but earnest puppy love in its lyrics: “Come to Tennessee/ ‘Cause you’re the only 10 I see,” they sing without a shred of irony. The pun is the stuff of wedding vows on their lips.
There are enough maddeningly brilliant phrases to fill an entire discography on Bright Flight. It’s the first record Berman released after his sole poetry collection, the stunning and mildly successful Actual Air, and there’s a clear primacy of words on this record. At the time, Berman chalked it up to the absence of Malkmus, who he said told him “lyrics to me are not important, they’re just an afterthought.” But it’s hard to imagine Berman writing any other way than painstakingly poetic. The book and album share a similar worldview, in retrospect — both are imminently postmodern, rooted in a wonder of nature, and deeply human. “I Remember You,” with its star-crossed lovers, rings of the same wistful whimsy as his poems. After the song’s protagonist gets hit by a truck and loses his lover, he uses the settlement money to buy the truck that hit him; it’s reminiscent, in its absurdity, of “The Spine Of The Snowman,” with its moon man looking down at Earth, explaining the concept of snowmen to a robot.
Bright Flight is also, read another way, a warning sign: “Darling, there’s a gun in the garland,” he sings on “Room Games And Diamond Rain” — “The dream is not all dream.” Though playing armchair psychologist with lyrics is a dangerous game, it’s hard to separate the despair in Bright Flight from his serious suicide attempt just two years later, in 2003. “We’d never been promised there will be a tomorrow,” he sings solemnly on “Death Of An Heir Of Sorrows,” the album’s final track and an ode to his late friend and Actual Air publisher Rob Bingham. Berman was clearly carrying the weight of these losses alongside the levity of his budding romance, and the album feels divided between those two poles — reinvention through romantic love, and death. It’s a balance he so delicately maintained until his final record as Purple Mountains; it’s the darkness and the depth that makes the cheesiness, the bad puns, the crazy characters in his songs all the more filled with light. Oh, he’s lightning. Oh, he’s rain.