It is clear from the huge wealth of different layers and references that make up this compelling and intelligently constructed work that he has more than just your usual run-of-the-mill rock star frippery on his mind. He reaffirms this in person when we catch up with him at home, ahead of the record’s release.
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is Berman’s sixth offering in a career spanning two decades, and as a result pre-release jitters no longer hit as hard as they used to, and he doesn’t seem at all nervous by how it will be received.
Instead the alt-country legend talks at length and thoughtfully about his place in the world, the future of Silver Jews and the social issues he sees facing younger generations.
Berman comes across as a serious chap, but a warm, considered and very genuine one at that, and he starts our conversation today by describing his most recent effort as “a bit of a challenge”, but what does he mean? “Well, I think it will take a while for people to get all the little connections and puns on the record,” he smiles. “I think it is the most complex text I’ve ever written while appearing quite coherent on the surface. It’s a funny mixture like that. When I was writing the songs for this album I was more open to the irrational, so it might pose a challenge to the modern listener because it’s harder than ever in 2008 to believe in things that don’t make sense to the rational mind.
“For the first time I can say that I could walk away from music because this album is an answer to the problems posed by the others I’ve written.” – David Berman
“Also I think a lot of music today doesn’t really ask to be listened to,” he adds, “it kind of says it’s ok to listen to it in the background because people are so busy, and the music that rises to the top really reflects that. With my music you can’t do other things while listening to it, you really have to sit down and give it your full attention because I’m not a technically adept guitar player or a singer with a beautiful voice, so if I don’t pour my energy into what I can do – into saying something worth listening to and communicating something interesting – then people will be like, ‘What’s that crap in the background?’,” he chuckles. “I guess I’m saying that the way people listen to other music doesn’t really benefit my music.”
Recorded in Nashville and Lexington, Virginia, Berman might make these 12 beautifully melodic and compelling country rock efforts sound complicated but actually listening to them is an absolute treat. The way they were created, however, is a little more complex. Each song was conjured up from scratch specifically for this latest project, written side by side and taken from ideas scrawled on various different coloured notecards – a completely new method of working inspired by the Tennessee-based singer/songwriter’s school days.
“I felt like I really knew what I was doing from the beginning this time,” he says. “I wasn’t working with old songs that already had a character, I decided to create fresh ones that would have relationships to each other rather than just a random collection of tracks written years apart. I remembered seeing the better students at school using notecards to write papers and I used to wish I had my act together like them so I decided to do it for the first time, aged 41,” he chuckles.
“The system really got me off the ground. I would put riffs and chord progressions on green cards and ideas for songs on orange notecards and it gave me a chance to think about things properly rather than just following the first idea that came up. I enjoyed it and it also made me a better editor and I rewrote, rewrote and rewrote until I was sure that every line followed the line before it and that every line contributed to the overall thrust of the song.”
It’s a methodical and incredibly cerebral way of working but a necessary one when you attempt to match up all the intricate links and metaphors that make Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea such a masterpiece. There’s the striking cover art by Australian painter Stephen Bush, for example, which depicts elephants with human bodies standing on a cliff edge staring out to ferocious waves, and although it is just one aspect of the album, Berman goes on to explain that it has a deep resonance with what he was writing about this time around.
“When I saw that painting it spoke to me because in my music the main characters tend to be animals – I don’t really know how to make sympathetic human characters because they are so disappointing to me. To have stuffed elephants in a man vs nature environment is absurd but it would be almost more absurd if those were human beings on the cover. I guess as well the vulnerability of the elephant kind of reminds me of the younger generation. They seem smart, kind and hard-working but I don’t think they have quite realised how much work they’ll have to do to fix the mess that adults now have gotten us all into; running roughshod over society with their arrogant corporate mindsets and desires and consumption and ridiculous ideologies.
“I don’t want to be like Pearl Jam, taking up space where other younger bands could come through…” – David Berman
“That again feeds into the references to 1913 on the album,” he goes on to explain, “and in particular a speech that Teddy Roosevelt gave to some younger Americans then. So I guess I’ve made an album that says, hey, this is a 1913 kind of moment. None of us can understand how different life will be after we have gone through these tumultuous times and the irresponsbility of adults today reminds me of the foolishness of the Victorian and Edwardian adults who blundered into World War One because their opinions of what humanity could do were outrageous.
“I feel hopeful though,” Berman adds, “because I know that if anyone has the talent to get through it, it’s these kids, although it will be rough. They seem to be able to work well together and are very modest, not screaming Kurt Cobain cry-babies, like the ‘I hate the world and I want to die’ people of my generation.”
With a return to poetry on the cards this year, as soon as the Silver Jews complete their touring commitments – Berman released his first collection Actual Air in 1999, has just signed up with a literary agent and talks of writing prose and possible memoirs in the future – the frontman shockingly admits that the future of this much-loved and revered band currently hangs in the balance. “After this I will stop and try to work out where I want to put my energy next and I don’t know if it will be writing songs. For the first time I can say that I could walk away from music because this album is an answer to the problems posed by the others I’ve written. Plus you always want to go out on a good note and I don’t want to be like Pearl Jam, taking up space where other younger bands could come through.”
How so? “It frustrated me at college that all the acts in the Top 10 were like The Moody Blues and Phil Collins. It was like why did we get stuck with the last generation’s music, why can’t we have our own? So I don’t want to be a part of anything like that again, it is suffocating.” While he has a point about rock stars overstaying their welcome, Berman and his bunch of super-talented musicians are one of modern music’s most consistent and rewarding outfits, so it would be incredibly sad to see them go. Enjoy their staggeringly good output while you can.
Silver Jews’ Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is out now through Drag City.