It is said that David Berman wrote his second outing for Drag City, Starlite Walker, in a Mississippi cabin. And in that cabin he fashioned a modern masterpiece of loose and shambling tales wedded to ragged Chilton-esque melodies. Those abstract tales were smeared with the blood, guns, whiskey and mud of the South, and in the studio he delivered them with his trademark urban-cowboy, laconic drawl. It was near perfect (the lone misstep being the ludicrous “The Country Diary of a Subway Conductor”) and lyrically it was unlike anything I had ever heard. Berman comes off like a backwoods Raymond Carver detailing the minutiae of Southern life in an absurd and dreamlike way.
This year he released his latest opus, Bright Flight, (minus frequent collaborator Steven Malkmus) and it seems like this older, bearded and more sophisticated Berman has let things slip a bit. Unlike “American Water,” the 1998 album which is a modern touchstone for any poet who wants to pick up a guitar, Berman recorded Bright Flight in Nashville. Sadly it shows.
Nashville was the place where the dirt and scuzz was washed off all the Memphis boys and the Mississippi troubadours. It’s where country stumbled and Johnny Cash gave way to Ronnie Milsap, and the world of popular country music has never been the same since. It’s not that Bright Flight is awash in treacly strings and a host of back up singers; rather, it reveals a David Berman without the rough edges, replete with a pedal steel on almost every song, and a George Strait cover (brilliant as it may be). Lyrically, (and it is the lyrics that are bound to be the focal point of any Silver Jews Album) Berman hasn’t missed a step. From the strangely brilliant melancholia of “I Remember Me” to the depressed pathos of “Horseleg Swastikas” where his wordplay skills are duly plied in the line: “I wanna be like water if I can/‘Cause water doesn’t give a damn,” these songs show Berman at the height of his powers. He composes sad and lonely vignettes of achingly absurd lives set in the countrified netherworld of his mind. Stories where a man gets hit by a runaway truck while cutting flowers on the side of the road, slips into a coma, and upon awakening finds his wife has remarried, running off to Oklahoma with a banker. This truly is as literary as music gets today.
Unfortunately, the album lacks the tunes to keep up with its masterful lyrics. While lyrically, “I Remember Me” is stunning, musically it is quite dull with its Bob Seger-ish melody. Bright Flight lacks a direct guitar sound; most of the guitar playing is either sharp riffs or thin soft strums that get buried in the mix leaving a piano or Berman’s low and flat drawl as the focal point. The one song that has a distinctive guitar sound is the risky “Time Will Break the World” with it’s Prince-like riffs which punctuate each misanthropic line. It’s by far Berman’s most grim and foreboding song since his take on the Stones’ “Cocksucker Blues.”
It’s obvious Berman decided to “go country” with this album, and while usually I would like that, he goes in the wrong direction, sounding forced. Looking back on Berman’ s career each album is marked with a dirty amateur quality, a strange contradiction of literary sophistication and musical innocence. That balance was where the brilliance of the Silver Jews lay. For most of Bright Flight there is a reticence that bogs it down, a failure to let the looseness show through. There’s only one moment on the album, in “Room Games and Diamond Rain,” where everything hangs out in a sloppy twin guitar solo.
An album as stunning as American Water would be tough to follow and it seems that on Bright Flight he wanted to do something different. David Berman is an iconoclast in the truest sense of the word, he doesn’t care what people think and he doesn’t have an agenda. The one irreplaceable thing an iconoclast brings to the world of music is a purity that those of us who care, truly long for. It’s easy to forgive the mistakes of an artist like David Berman because the purity shows through and I will forever look forward to what he does, whether it is a book of poetry, stories, or hopefully, an album.
Written by Bryan Price.