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Here Are Some Beautiful Covers of Silver Jews Songs

In the weeks since David Berman's death, he's received tributes across genres from free-spirited artists like Animal Collective, Nothing, and Bill Callahan.

by Colin Joyce
Aug 30 2019, 2:45pm

Photo by Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns

David Berman, the songwriter best known as the driving force behind Silver Jews, died tragically earlier this month. When any artist dies, it inspires a fair amount of introspection and grief among peers and fans, but the tenor of mourning around Berman has felt different. That's probably in part due to the type of artist he was. Many legends make work that feels untouchable, but even when Berman—as he often did—was gracefully exploring the dark parts of the human psyche, his work felt approachable. Even if there's no way you could write songs like his, it kinda felt like you could.

In the weeks since his death, a number of artists have offered tribute to him by way of playing covers of his songs. It's not an unusual way to pay homage to an artist who's passed, but it's striking how vast and varied the sorts of acts that did so are. Covers have emerged from experimental pop acts, folk bands, grave singer-songwriters, and old punks, all united by a love for the way Berman looked at the world. There's something about Berman's disposition that makes his vast cast of followers make sense. His work was down to earth, and outlined feelings that so many felt in their darkest hours. This was for everyone to share. Here are a few of the most special performances and recordings of Berman's songs released over the last few weeks.

Animal Collective, "Ballad of Reverend War Character"

On Friday morning, Animal Collective's Avey Tare and Geologist shared this slow, oozy cover of this forlorn song from The Natural Bridge alongside a note about what Berman's music has meant to them over the years. "A few weeks ago we planned on seeing Purple Mountains together," he wrote. "Instead we spent the night listening to David's records and talking about how much his music and art meant to us. He was an inspiration for decades." So they picked up their guitars and wrung out this cover, the proceeds of which will go to MusiCares and Music Health Alliance.

Bill Callahan, "Trains Across the Sea"

Berman's longtime friend and Drag City labelmate Bill Callahan shared an incredibly moving tribute to him on Twitter in the days after his death, writing that "the world is and will always be a David Berman lyric." A few weeks later, he opened one of his New York tour dates with another beautiful moment, this cover of "Trains Across the Sea" from Starlite Walker. Callahan is one of a few contemporary songwriters with as much gravity in his voice as Berman, so it's a real tearjerker.

Nothing, "We Are Real"

The dreamy Philadelphia punks play fast and loose with the melody of this beloved American Water track, but the ghostly energy they give it more than makes up for it. It's a testament to the power of the lyrics; it doesn't matter how you sing them.

First Aid Kit, "Random Rules"

The Swedish folk duo add a lightness and hope to this American Water cut. They also wrote a song called "Strange Beauty," in an attempt to process Berman's passing. "We hope the songs can be some kind of comfort," they said in a press release.

The Mountain Goats, "Pet Politics"

John Darnielle originally recorded a stripped down and pissed off cover of The Natural Bridge's "Pet Politics" for a compilation back in 2005, but on the night after Berman's death, he broke it back out in tribute. Video evidence shows it more stark and beautiful than ever.