Review Summary: David Berman moves to Nashville and gets a little bit country-er on the Silver Jews' 4th LP - and the results are excellent.
After releasing arguably their best work (and for my money one of the best indie rock albums of the decade) with 1998’s ‘American Water’, what followed was a rocky period for David Berman and the Silver Jews, marked by both success and tragedy, highs and lows. Now firmly out of Pavement’s shadow (which they were often unfairly cast in, though perhaps still are to some degree), Berman’s songwriting appeared to be at its creative peak, his stature as a singular, respected songwriter its highest, assisted by his critically acclaimed 1999 book of poetry ‘Actual Air’. During this time he also met his wife Cassie, who’d feature on all future Silver Jews albums. But amidst this outward success and excitement Berman struggled immensely with depression and drug abuse, also coping with the death of some close friends. ‘Bright Flight’, the band’s fourth LP, embodies this whirlwind of ups and downs - foreboding passages mingle with sweet odes to love, jangly up-beat numbers appear alongside slow and poignant lamentations, apocalyptic imagery juxtaposes illusions to picturesque countrysides - It’s an album full of things that maybe shouldn’t go together but do. As complex as it is simple, the record seems to capture the essence of David Berman and what he did so well which was toe the line between darkness and light, hope and despair, and with a brutal honesty, incisive wit and poetic prowess. This, coupled with a penchant for memorable melodies makes “Bright Flight” a wonderful and very listenable record. Though perhaps sonically less interesting (compared to say, ‘American Water’) and more grounded in tradition, it is still one of the group’s strongest and most consistent offerings.
Always one to start a record with a (lyrical) bang, ‘Bright Flight’ opens with Berman singing “When God was young he made the wind and the sun, and since then it’s been a slow education” before the band chimes in, and it’s almost immediately apparent this isn’t American Water II but something a little different. The songs here are, on the whole, more overtly country-influenced, twangier, solemn. Where Stephen Malkmus’ presence was strongly felt on the previous LP, he is replaced here by Nashville-based guitarist William Tyler, someone more rooted in country and folk music (the record itself was befittingly recorded in Nashville). Where ‘American Water’ contained songs that felt loose, tended to drift and meander, the batch here feels generally tighter in craft and rooted formally (I say this impartially as both styles really work). Things never get as candidly joyful as “It’s sunny and 75, it feels so good to be alive” but there’s plenty of exuberance to be found, the most notable examples being “Room Games and Diamond Rain” and “Tennessee”, both delightful tunes. Additionally, “Let’s Not and Say We Did” is a care-free romp of a song and though it’s not one of the best here it’s still a lot of fun.
“I Remember Me” finds Berman in prime story-telling form - one of his very best, while ‘Transylvania Blues’ follows the tradition of having one instrumental, always a strategically placed and interesting one (see also: “The Moon is Number 18”, “The Right to Remain Silent”, “Night Society”). “Tennessee” is a clear highlight with its sweet and cheerful chorus, and boasts one of my favorite Berman lyrics: “Punk rock died when the first kid said ‘punk’s not dead'”. “Time Will Break the World” is a darker one, with an ominous tone, filled with that apocalyptic imagery I alluded to earlier, peppered with haunting yet comical, vivid lines like “tanning beds explode with rich women inside” and “my horse’s legs look like four brown shotguns”. “Horseleg Swastikas” captures brilliantly what it feels like to be hungover, dying and trapped albeit in the peculiar style that only Berman could do (“every single thought is like a punch in the face, I’m like a rabbit freezing on a star”). I mean, he essentially pulls off an almost Dad joke-esque lyric - “I wanna be like water if I can, cuz water doesn’t give a damn”, but it just works so well.
I could probably write a paragraph about each song here but that wouldn’t accomplish much. This isn’t an objective review - David Berman’s my favorite songwriter - I just didn’t want this space to be empty because I think it deserves better. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the album closer. “Death of an Heir of Sorrows” is the shortest song but one which always hits the hardest. A gentle acoustic number and tribute to Berman’s friend, writer Bob Bingham, there’s something so bare and poignant about it. There’s a subdued desperation, a resignation, a feeling so intense it hurts. Even though it’s comprised of wishes, there’s an acceptance, a sort of peace or a wisdom that, to me anyway, finds solace in the pain and longing. It’s a goddamn beautiful song is what I’m trying to get at. David Berman was the real deal, and ‘Bright Flight’ is one of his finest moments. It’s too bad that it had come from such a painful and dark place, but sadly isn’t that often the caveat with lots of great art.