If Pavement was the face of 1990s indie-rock, fans of the countrified rock sound that dominated the college music scene might well point to the band Silver Jews as the body. Founded by singer and songwriter David Berman, the Silver Jews released an EP and three albums on Chicago’s Drag City label during the 1990s, each building on Berman’s developing assurance as a writer of complex, heady lyrics.
Berman and Pavement members Steven Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich met as undergraduates at the University of Virginia. After college, the three moved to New York City, where Silver Jews was formed out of the trio's musical experimentations. When producers from Drag City approached Pavement about putting an album together, they discovered some of Berman’s recordings and promptly released them as the EP, Arizona City.
Three influential albums followed, as did an MFA at the University of Massachusetts, where Berman’s former teacher, poet Charles Wright, had directed him to “go and study with James Tate.” In 1998, Berman was approached by Silver Jews fan and Open City magazine founder Rob Bingham to publish a collection of his poems. The result was 1999’s Actual Air, released to incredible sales (over 10,000 copies sold to date) and glowing reviews from such high-profile magazines as GQ, Entertainment Weekly, and Spin.
Tate’s blurb for Actual Air describes Berman’s poems as “narratives that freeze life in impossible contortions.” Berman has called them “psychedelic soap operas.” Both belie the reverence for the mundane, for the accumulation of details into something bordering on the profound. The poems in Actual Air reveal an ear and eye attentive to pop culture—Judas Priest, Woolite, and James Michener make guest appearances—and a sense of wonderment for the sometimes funny, sometimes melancholic mysteries of daily life.
Revered for their careful observation and off-kilter humor, the poems in Actual Air read like offspring of the union of Wallace Stevens and Kenneth Koch, both of whom Berman cites as important influences. Take, for example, the final lines of “The Moon,” which depicts the deceptively simple preparations for a high school prom:
Clouds drift across the silverware. There is red larkspur,
blue gum, and ivy. A boy kneels before his date.
And the moon, I forgot to mention the moon.
Berman, who has described contemporary poetry as largely the province of “uncharismatic nerds who use the word ‘desire’ pointlessly and ‘absence’ as a noun even more pointlessly,” is at work on a second collection, tentatively titled Richard Simmons 1950–?. Meanwhile, Silver Jews released a fourth album, Bright Flight, in 2001, and Drag City issued a limited-edition hardcover version of Actual Air in 2003.
Talking to Redivider magazine about his approach to writing song lyrics and poems, Berman said, “If I write a song, I usually start out with the music and then write words to fit into those cadences. I can go anywhere when I sit down with a blank piece of paper [to write a poem]. But the flip side of that freedom is there’s a lot more pressure. The limits of songwriting are actually very helpful.” Later in the interview, Berman speaks to the reception of both his music and poems: “I think each is taken a little less seriously because each field just thinks I’m moonlighting in it.”