David Berman, the beloved American songwriter, poet, and cartoonist, who died yesterday (August 7) at the age of 52, was a master at evoking the strange sadness of our mortality that drags absurdity into focus.
Best known for his work with Silver Jews—a band he formed with Pavement's Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich in 1989—Berman spent 30 years mining gallows humor and tack-sharp poetry from despair and muted desperation. But David Berman didn't just balance the more tragic overtones of his imagined worlds with wit; he positioned it center-stage for all to see. This approach is clear in songs like "Tennessee," on which he skewered his whole body of work in a single couplet: "We're gonna move to Nashville, and I'll make a career / Out of writing sad songs and getting paid by the tear."
Berman's best work traced how disappointment can slowly dim the lights of one's inner world. When you find yourself retreating inside your own head, his warm, endlessly familiar presence will double up as a resounding reminder: "Look, don't worry. It happens to other people, too." Via observation, free association and self-deprecation, he navigated ennui, isolation, and addiction on Silver Jews albums like The Natural Bridge and—his pièce de résistance—1998's American Water. Few songwriters truly manage to pull off being funny in song. David Berman was a rare exception to the rule. But being funny and emphatically earnest? It was his calling.
Lyrically, Berman orchestrated stand-offs between evocative details and droll delivery. Take how, knowing as all hell, he speak-croons "All my favorite singers couldn't sing" on American Water peak "Blue Arrangements." Or how, on "I'm Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You," he ekes out Waitsian poetry from otherwise pathetic-sounding circumstances ("I've been working at the airport bar, it's like Christmas in a submarine"). Or the way "Dallas" from The Natural Bridge locates some strange satisfaction in despair ("I passed out on the 14th floor / The CPR was so erotic.") On these songs, and many more, Berman's perspective is found in the hilarious juxtaposition. He blurred the lines between sad and funny to the point where it became impossible to work out if the line was ever there at all.
Luckily, Berman's legacy is a many-layered thing. Having earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts, his first and only poetry collection, Actual Air, was an extension of the world he created in song. Honing in on the ordinariness and growing pains of modern America, poems like "Self-Portrait at 28" ("I can't remember being born and no one else can remember it either / Even the doctor who I met years later at a cocktail party") were both absurd and wrenching.
As well as keeping a low-key Blogspot page, which often served as a peek into his creative process, Berman published a book of pen-and-ink cartoons, The Portable February, via Drag City in 2009. Featuring crude, single-panel drawings, presented without context, these freehand sketches bridged high and low comedy, and offered up another side to the cerebral, poignant, and wistfully funny headspace that Berman inhabited.
Back in May, ten years after Silver Jews called it a day, Berman emerged from musical semi-retirement in a new guise, Purple Mountains. By all accounts, the project's debut was a triumphant return from a songwriter whose craft was sorely missed. From lead single "All My Happiness is Gone" and "Margaritas in the Mall" to "She's Making Friends, I'm Turning Stranger," there was a curious pleasure in trying to find, once more, the strange victory in even his most bummed-out turns of phrase. Speaking to Exclaim about the album in June, Berman said of one if its songs, the strutting "Storyline Fever": "[It] is just slang for being carried away. That storyline might be that things will never get better or that I'm all washed up. That's where I put the funny lines." He found safe, sad places for funny lines even in songs that seemed hopeless.
Of course, the punchline didn't always come. But from what we've been left, one fact is clearer than ever before: None of David Berman's peers wielded poetry with wit and candor quite as well as he did. Easy to like and hard to shake, he was a kind of elevated prankster who never had to choose between being sardonic, accessible, or emotionally complex. His brand of confessionalism thrived in a realm where humor isn't just a clever device to deflect from hard truths; it's something much more vital to the human experience.
As the Silver Jews' song "Tennessee" foretold, he made a name and career out of writing sad songs, and getting paid—most likely not enough—"by the tear." But even at their most dejected, these same tales took on a curious, uniquely joyful quality. That's the biggest lesson we can take away from Berman's music, and one that came so naturally to him—in the darkness, somewhere, there is a light.