silver jews – american water

baby, there’s no guidance when random rules

there was a chance when i first got this album that i’d hate it. the first song, random rules, talks of line dancing, screwing one’s way across europe and an egotism almost unmatched so far (yes, i count last night’s artist in that assessment). but it’s david berman – what’s on the surface has little to do with what’s buried beneath.

i love it so inevitably once it reaches night society, a great multi-layered instrumental guitar piece. it was a sign that there would be diversity across these twelve songs.

steve malkmus and david’s voice complement each other perfectly on federal dust – it’s a lumbering minor key effort. i think it was the last i loved steve’s singing and writing. and the guitars are again gorgeously deep. it’s repeated, without the minor key and with some odd wah guitar, on blue arrangements. when it gets to the second verse, after the almost faux-funk of the chorus, he sings it so quietly, and drops this: the room is dark and heavy with what i want to say, i see murals in the radio static and on your blue, blue jeans.

then we are real begins like it might be a low ebb on the album; a bit wishy washy, no hook quite like the others to that point. yet it’s one of those songs that ends up demanding attention paid to the lyrics and a dawning realisation towards the end of it that the music is actually brilliant. and they’re not the slightly eye-roll inducing words that david, i feel, tended to write more in the post-2000 work of the silver jews. there was a philosophical core to this song that is unparalleled anywhere else in the collection.

not long after we are real, the album does let itself down once with honk if you’re lonely. to that point, i was firmly of the belief that even the greatest albums had weaknesses. i guess i still think that, but it matters less these days. i learned that the contract an artist has with their listeners is not legally binding, and that they will always write, perform and sing something that just annoys the hell out of you. it was a great lesson in acceptance of someone for all their beauty and all their flaws.

and thus it finally reaches the pinnacle in the last song, the wild kindness. you hear perhaps some of david’s struggles; and yet there is a redemptive quality. it’s not uplifting, and conveys a sense of finality befitting of the last song on an album that has taken such a journey. the keyboard refrain; the steady rhythm; the mix of warm electric and acoustic guitars replete with a solo where otherwise a verse might have been; and the final beautiful blend of david and steve.

it was hard to explain to anyone why i loved this album and this band so much. it arrived in a year that i still count as my worst, and yet the memories of this music; how much it meant to me; are right there, in spite of how much i tried to drown all the other crap that was happening. i knew it was gonna be a bad year based on the first song i heard as the new year ticked over from 1997 – tub thumping.

just having an album like american water was reason enough to not give up – the power of music in soul-sapping times.

i’m gonna shine out in the wild kindness, and hold the world to its word


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