Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Bright Flight', the 2001 album from Silver Jews.
“In 1984 I was hospitalised for approaching perfection” With the first line from ‘American Water’ David Berman set the lyrical bar for opening a record. Four years later, on 2001’s ‘Bright Flight’, he almost came close to topping it: “When God was young/ He made the moon and the sun/ And since then/ It’s been a slow education” ‘Bright Flight’ was Silver Jews’ fourth album, recorded in Nashville and soaked in the locale’s musical traditions and thematic axioms. Where ‘American Water’ featured erstwhile Joo Steve Malkmus trading off with Berman, his foil and backing vocalist this time around was now-wife-then-girlfriend Cassie Berman. ‘Bright Flight’, as a result, is more of a poignantly infused love letter - more refined, warmed with that Nashville production, the edges that gave ‘American Water’ its playfulness and impulsive quality smoothed over.
Berman is a poet first and foremost, one who just happens to play music, and throughout Silver Jews’ records seemingly throwaway lines are loaded with detail and implied back-stories. He moves from the apocalyptic ("Tanning beds explode with rich women inside") to nudge-and-wink puns over Bright Flight's ten tracks, and pulls it off as only he can. “You’re the only ten I see,” he sings on Tennessee, he and Cassie a pair of gutter punks playing at Gram and Emmylou. “We're gonna live in Nashville and I'll make a career/ Out of writing sad songs and getting paid by the tear”, he promises, pitchin’ woo at the girl whose doorbell plays a bar of Stephen Foster. To someone else, departed, “I wish I had a thousand bucks/ I wish I was the Royal Trux/But mostly I wish/ I wish I was with you.” This is the kind of starry-eyed honesty that made ‘Bright Flight’ beautiful in a way that previous Silver Jews albums couldn’t reach; where once there was bunch of guys from Pavement making the place all so wonderfully unruly, Berman’s muse was now right there on bass guitar.
Berman’s evocations are like no other lyricist, rich with texture and often striking in their execution – more impressive as it seems he has a limitless imagination for such densely packed couplets. “The snow falls down so beautiful and stupid/ For the black silhouette of Abraham Lincoln, trees/ The sky's low and grey like a Japanese table/ And my horse's legs look like four brown shotguns” What about that, huh? His musings are often camouflaged in the band’s noise, but the music momentarily serves to focus the attention on Death Of An Heir Of Sorrows, surging and bristling over those last few words of Berman’s admission that “I have not avoided certainty/ It has always just eluded me. Berman struggled with his own demons in the years following ‘Bright Flight’, with depression and addiction eventually leading to a suicide attempt in 2003. As he sings, “We'd never been promised there will be a tomorrow”, its fatalism is steeped in grief, but acceptance too. Life and death are so closely linked that a person is forever on the brink of the abyss.
The album’s longest track is the one I find myself returning to time and time again, another instance where Berman seems to rest his hands on your shoulders before dispensing some truth. “He almost walked into a wall/ Oh man she was a sight to see/ And at the party down the hall/He said ‘you are the highest apple in the tree’” I Remember Me is Berman’s kind of love story, where two people fall hard in love and tragedy strikes, as it inevitably must. A couple cut flowers by the roadside, and a runaway truck cuts short a marriage proposal before it has even passed the lips. When the victim wakes from his coma, his love “has long gone/ Married a banker and gone to Oklahoma” At the first of countless listens, Berman’s lovelorn lyrics through the initial flushes of a relationship seemed almost hackneyed - it was hard to believe the man who was hospitalised for approaching perfection had penned them. On repeated (and repeated) visits, though, I Remember Me ranks as the one of truest portrayals of a love affair you’re likely to hear, laid bare as unabashedly as Willis Alan Ramsay’s Muskrat Candlelight – slow dancing so the needle wouldn’t skip, “Hand in hand down a waterslide in Chattanooga”, “A winter's plane flight to Aruba/ Where he threw a boombox into the sea.”
Room Games And Diamond Rain sees Berman’s candour in matters of the heart equally as explicit - “I'm gonna love you for a hundred years / Through suffering and celebration, dear” Somehow, it rings truer than, say, Brian Wilson’s cosmic claim to love someone “long as there are stars above you” on God Only Knows, taking a well-worn vow and coating it in sardonic integrity. Berman knows nothing is forever, that everything has limitations, “like plug-in reindeer/ Whose cords can't stretch far enough to fly”
Friday Night Fever is a louche, fun reimaging of George Strait’s honky tonk version, a late-night barroom run-through with a loose and lovely guitar solo to match the narrator’s alcohol-fuzzed testimony - “I've heard all those come on lines/ But I go home at closing time/ And I know no-one could ever take her place” It’s almost as if after the wonderful hat-trick of a raucous Let’s Not And Say We Did, Tennessee, and Friday Night Fever, Berman has to remind us that the light is only a sliver that occasionally pierces the dark, and Death Of An Heir Of Sorrows draws a funeral veil over Silver Jews’ mid-period gem. The band eventually called it a day in 2009 following the previous year’s ‘Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea’, although there have been recent rumblings from The Joos camp. It seems a group of like-minded souls have gotten together in a room to play music. Might it mean that Berman will give us one more knockout album opener? Hope so, man.