Review Summary: All of Silver Jews' best qualities come together on American Water. David Berman's clever lyrics are matched by brilliant compositions of country-flavored indie-rock. A masterpiece.
There are a number of reasons why Silver Jews’ 1998 album, American Water
is a noteworthy release. The most obvious one, the thing so often associated with chief song writer David Berman, is his intelligent lyrics. They are poetic, nonsensical, humorous and evocative all at the same time. This leads me to sort of a pet peeve of mine. When a song writer has one extremely prominent talent, it’s often that that one talent overshadows the rest. Jimi Hendrix’ prodigious guitar playing took the focus away from his song writing talents. More in relation to Berman, a lot of potent lyricists are written off as having only that quality. Two prominent examples are lyrical geniuses Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Obviously, a lot of people recognize that the notion is nonsense, but on many occasions have I heard people implying that Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are just good poets, and that the music simply doesn’t match up with the lyrics. I beg to differ. Listen to the melodies of “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” and “Famous Blue Raincoat”. If you’re not convinced I’m right, I don’t know what to tell you (*** off, maybe).
Such a case might also have been made for the Jews’ first album, Starlite Walker
, a musically sloppy (charming but definitely inaccessible), lyrically brilliant debut, David Berman refutes any such notion with American Water
still displays his talent for writing a pop hook, but it is ultimately inconsistent. The ideas are fully realised on American Water
. It’s a cohesive country-tinged indie-pop, which leaves little to be desired both on the musical as well as the lyrical side. It is a warm, entertaining and wholly enjoyable record, recommendable to anyone with a passing interest in indie music. Obviously, while Berman is without a doubt the main song writer, he does not deserve all of the credit. Pavement front man Stephen Malkmus
plays guitar, and creates such a perfect back-drop to Berman’s lyrics, recalling indie heroes Johnny Marr
If one obstruction stands between American Water
and the mass of future fans waiting to absorb and adore Berman’s entrancing melodies and witty lyrics, it is his detached singing style. It emphasizes his sardonic lyrics to great effect, but can still be off-putting at first. This is evident in the first few seconds of the record, as Berman lazily (in a good way, honest) delivers the excellent line, “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection”
, in “Random Rules”. The song is rather slow and melancholic, as Berman laments his lost love. His emotionless voice renders the song much more tragic than it would have been otherwise. Even though his lyrics are often tongue-in-cheek and at times nonsensical, his delivery and the mood set by the music makes it a somewhat depressing song.
Nothing sounds out of place. For instance the shift from the melancholic “Random Rules” to the upbeat “Smiths & Jones Forever”, possibly the catchiest song on the album, is effortless. The album shifts between different moods a lot but somehow manages to create a cohesive sound at the same time. “Blue Arrangements” is funky, laid-back song, “People” is sunny pop music at its very best. “Honk If You’re Lonely” may not be of considerable lyrical depth, but it is catchy as anything and humorous. A variety of styles are covered here , brought together by the common denominator of Berman’s unmistakable lyrics and vocals and Malkmus’ country-flavoured guitarplaying.
Flaws? Filler? Downsides? In all honesty, there aren’t any. Any minor gripe you might have with the album seems to disappear with each listening. There are no explosive choruses, mind-numbing solos or other immediately gripping elements, and it is quite likely that the album won’t send you spiralling into the opposite wall of your room on the first couple of listens. American Water
grows with each listen without growing old. All of Silver Jews’ best qualities come together here, and Berman & Co. bring us an unreserved masterpiece. It isn’t 1984, but David Berman certainly approached perfection here.