Really sad news this morning of one of American UK’s musical heroes – only last month we gave his new Purple Mountains album a 9 out of 10 – “Not a single mention of any majesties”. The Guardian reports: “David Berman, who was regarded as one of the most poetic voices in US indie rock, has died aged 52. His record label, Drag City, confirmed the news, but hasn’t confirmed the cause of death.
Berman was best known for his project Silver Jews, and his wry lyrics. The band formed in 1989 in New Jersey, when Berman was living and working with Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, who would go on to form the successful band Pavement. Malkmus has paid tribute to Berman, writing on Twitter: “His death is fucking dark … depression is crippling … he was a one of a kinder [sic] the songs he wrote were his main passion esp at the end. Hope death equals peace cuz he could sure use it.”
Though not reaching the same level of success as Pavement, Silver Jews became a cult group in the US indie rock scene. Berman long refused to tour, but changed his mind for fifth album Tanglewood Numbers (2005), and toured with the band – which included his then wife Cassie Berman – until their dissolution in 2009. He also published a book of poetry, Actual Air (1999), and another of cartoons, The Portable February (2009).
One of the reasons Berman gave for breaking up the band was the work of his father, lobbyist Richard Berman, known in Washington political circles as “Dr Evil” for his advocacy work on behalf of industries including tobacco and fossil fuels. “Previously I thought, through songs and poems and drawings, I could find and build a refuge away from his world,” Berman wrote shortly after the end of Silver Jews. “But there is the matter of Justice … There needs to be something more. I’ll see what that might be.” He began developing a TV show based on his father, and said he was in discussions with HBO to make it, but it was never filmed.
Berman disappeared from the public eye for a decade, but returned this year with a new project, Purple Mountains, featuring him backed by the folk-rock band Woods. The album was hugely acclaimed, with a five-star Guardian review describing it as having “likely the best lyric sheet of the year”. He was due to begin a US tour with the group this week.
He fought mental health and substance misuse issues. In 2005, he described“a long, suitcase-battering journey of sub-aqueous intoxication” when he used crack cocaine, alcohol and painkillers; he said he took “every drug in every way from 15 on”.
Drag City paid tribute to him, writing: “A great friend and one of the most inspiring individuals we’ve ever known is gone.” Nastanovich wrote: “I was amazed by David as a person, a humorist and a writer.”
Other musicians have paid tribute. Berman collaborated with the Australian group the Avalanches for their 2016 album Wildflower – they wrote on Instagram that he “provided much guidance, solace and humor reflecting on our shared struggles” and described his work as “sublime”. US indie-rock band the Mountain Goats wrote: “Of, loosely, my generation of songwriters, the best of us. This loss is devastating,” while Kurt Vile wrote: “David’s music always hit on a basic human gut level just in the power of his lyrics and voice alone … in a way no other modern artist of my generation has been able to.” The National’s Aaron Dessner called Berman “a massive talent and a huge influence on us”.