Last year, while promoting the recent Tanglewood Numbers (Drag City), David Berman, the lone permanent member of the Silver Jews, told the Fader that he'd bottomed out a couple years before in a small Minnesota town, becoming suicidal and abusing most of the better-known intoxicants. Since then some of his more obsessive fans have floated conspiracy theories on the Web suggesting he made the whole thing up, and admittedly Berman is just the kind of weirdo to think a stunt like that would be funny--he has a well-deserved reputation for being alternately megacryptic and prankishly confrontational. I believe his dark night was real, though, if only because the album he made on the other side sounds like the work of a man transformed. Earlier Silver Jews records functioned better as delivery mechanisms for Berman's brilliant, self-negating lyrics and stubbornly lo-fi aesthetic than as collections of songs. But not only is Tanglewood a studio album, with a comparatively huge sound, it's one of the most emotionally immediate things he's ever done. Listen to the closer, "There Is a Place," and the difference smacks you in the nose: backed by the tightest band he's put together yet, Berman breaks from the knowing winks of his slacker-poet persona to reach a state of real desperation and terror. This isn't to say that the man's undergone an across-the-board increase in seriousness, however. Abstract leaps of association still make up the bulk of his lyrics--"Punks in the beerlight / Toulouse-Lautrec" actually makes a kind of sense in context--and the dude deserves a medal for the way he can wring feeling out of a line like "I always loved you to the max." The Silver Jews' handful of previous gigs have included a "secret set" where Berman and Stephen Malkmus mortified a roomful of record nerds by noodling along to one of John Oswald's plunderphonic collages of the Grateful Dead, but for this first-ever tour Berman is bringing a proper band that includes his wife, Cassie, on bass and vocals, and road manager Bob Nastanovich from Pavement sitting in occasionally on drums. Why? opens. Fri 4/14, 9 PM, Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee, 773-489-3160 or 312-559-1212, sold out.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Schmelling.