“In 1984, I was hospitalised for approaching perfection” sings David Berman at the start of his breakthrough 1998 album American Water – it’s one of the most iconic lines from his most iconic song: ‘Random Rules’. The rest of the album is filled with similar surreal musings that are either nonsensical or the works of a poetic genius, depending on who you ask. Heck, sometimes they’re both. “Can you summon honey from a telephone?” asks Berman on ‘Smith & Jones Forever’, “Why can’t monsters get along with other monsters?” is the central, nagging question on ‘Send in the Clouds’. Berman’s words are like abstract paintings; some only see meaningless absurdity in them and walk on by, while other can scour over the fine details for hours and still find deeper layers of meaning.
Berman’s other-worldly lyricism creates a listening experience akin to navigating a daydream; where mundane moments take on new significance and familiar landmarks become interrupted by the bizarre and patently unbelievable. On “Like Like the the the death” Berman goes from rhetorically asking grand philosophical questions (“Why is there something instead of nothing?”) to “drinking coke in a kitchen with a dog who doesn’t know his name” to deadpanning the words “nobody cares about a dead hooker” in the space of 3 minutes.
Berman’s unparalleled style of story-telling allows him to find new revelations in familiar tales – “I’ve gotta ask you about that tan line on your ring finger” makes the story of a dissolved marriage sound more enthralling than ever. Berman’s dense imagery also serves another purpose – it makes moments of straightforward confession all the more staggering. On “Random Rules”, amidst a world of line-dancing, bathroom wall graffiti and conversations about the colour of the highway, Berman, downbeat, says “But nothing can change the fact that we used to share a bed”. The line hits with all the force of a freight train travelling at 100 miles an hour.
In the band’s early days, Silver Jews was dismissed as a Pavement tribute act (Berman had founded the band with Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus). By 1998, Berman no longer seemed to care about these dismissals and brought Malkmus back into the picture – with the Pavement frontman enjoying writing credits for three of these songs, while providing co-lead vocals on “Federal Dust”. While the music of Silver Jews continued to sound strikingly similar to much of Pavement’s output here, it still stands firmly by itself. While Pavement’s lyrics can often feel absurd for absurdity’s sake (not necessarily a bad thing!), Berman’s words feel selected with utmost precision. These are songs that cut deeper and hit harder.
Berman was a perpetually troubled soul – he struggled with substance abuse throughout much of the 90s (including during the recording of this album) and suffered with depression throughout his adult life. Weeks after releasing by far his bleakest album – 2019’s Purple Mountains – Berman died by suicide; having suffered from continued depression, grief from his beloved mother’s death and having racked up $100,000 of credit card debt in the final years of his life.
By all accounts, Berman circumstances during the writing and recording of American Water were also bleak. Yet, unlike the excellent-for-different-reasons Purple Mountains, American Water never feels submerged by the heaviness of it’s themes. Berman certainly doesn’t sanitise his past (“I am the trick my mother played on the world” he sings on ‘Send In The Clouds’), yet Berman largely faces forward on his band’s third album. American Water is the sound of someone who after decades of hardship still believes in a brighter future. It’s this that makes the album such a bittersweet listen nearly a quarter-century later.
On closer ‘The Wild Kindness’ – which boasts, perhaps, the catchiest guitar riff on the album – Berman employs plenty of characteristically uncharacteristic turns of phrase, but one stands out in particular. “Four dogs in the distance / Each stands for a kindness” Berman sings in the song’s pre-chorus – a line that evokes American Water’s own album art. Whether by mistake or design, there’s something profoundly moving about the image – the dogs a symbol of something better, their distance a reminder of how elusive that better thing (any better thing) can seem. In the second pre-chorus, the dogs no longer stand for kindness, but for “silence”; for the sort of inner peace that evaded Berman his entire life. In the song – and therefore the album’s – final lines, Berman sings “I’m gonna shine out in the wild kindness / And hold the world to it’s word”. It’s the sound of a bruised man fighting for the world to make a place for people like him – people otherwise seen as too broken, too fragile, too sensitive. That he never managed to do so is devastating, though at least the indomitable American Water remains as a blueprint for anyone wishing to continue his mission.