Review Summary: "No, I don't really wanna die......I only wanna die in your eyes!"
So begins the 2nd Silver Jews album, The Natural Bridge
. Accompanied by a snare drum pick-up note, we are immediately catapulted into the world through the eyes of David Berman. There's not much one can say about Berman that hasn't already been said. "The tortured poet who defined the slacker ethic of the hopeless Gen-X political climate," or perhaps (unfortunately) more often, "The guy who hung out with Stephen and Bob from Pavement." Despite the latter tag, Berman's own music seems to be the flipside of this slacker ethic one may associate with Pavement. Instead of jolly, grass-smoking guitar licks and clever one-liners that seem to encompass most of rock's history, we are given the seedy underbelly with understated guitar parts that sound as close to water as one could possible achieve, and one-liners that are anywhere between harrowing and tear-jerking.
Now, forgive all the hyperbole, but just soak up that first line alone from the song "How to Rent a Room." David punches us right in the gut as soon as the album shows itself, and he does not let go of your throat until the very last piano chords of "Pretty Eyes." The music contained within The Natural Bridge
would be best described as watery; perhaps the bridge being chosen purposefully to reflect this relationship between his words and the music. That's not to say the music is uninteresting, but if you go into this as a Pavement fan expecting any of the fun found on an album such as American Water
or Crooked Rain
, you're likely going to leave either disinterested, or in tears.
The mood of The Natural Bridge
is fluid like a river, but often unbearably dark. There is a sense of foreboding and dread throughout each of the first 5 tracks, with this coming out strongest on "Ballad of Reverend War Character," which is anything but a ballad, but more so a Talk Talk-esque poetry session with completely unrelated lines. "Census figures come out wrong, there's an extra in our midst," alongside "the stars don't shine upon us, we're just in the way of their light," each of which on their own could be worth thousands more words. This is the ultimate weapon Berman has; he can write two lines that stick with you more than most novels will. My personal favorite has always been the one from "Inside the Golden Days of Missing You," where all the music stops and he begs the question, "What if life is just some hard equation on a chalkboard in a science class for ghosts?" To really understand the appeal of Berman's music, one has to sit with his poetry and dissociate into the decaying music accompanying it, until it finds its way into your DNA.
The appeal of Silver Jews is quite hard to pin down, because it's neither the musicality alone or the poetry alone that make this album what it is. A vulgar explanation of the album might be "a disinterested backing band behind some of the most depressing and nonsensical lyrics of the 90s," but oftentimes, this is the appeal. The disinterest of the music is relatable on its own if you've ever struggled to get out of bed in the morning, and the lack of overstimulation is what makes The Natural Bridge
feel less like a bore, and more like that close friend who is happy to simply sit next to you while you cry. It's a shame David's words and music didn't save him in the same way they may have saved many of us, and his loss feels way less like a musician, but way more like that close friend who would stick through anything we may have come up against.
RIP David Berman, 1967-2019
What if life is just some hard equation
On a chalkboard in a science class for ghosts?
Then you can live again
But you'll have to die twice in the end
In the end
In the end
We'll meet again
We'll meet again...