Silver state

Welcome to this week’s Reno News & Review.

One of my favorite songwriters died this week. His name was David Berman, and he was the singer and songwriter of a band called Silver Jews, which released six near-perfect albums between 1989 and 2009.

We’ve lost a few great songwriters in the last few years—like David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen. David Berman wasn’t as well known as those canonical giants, but a dive into his discography demonstrates that maybe he should be.

It’s hard to say, though. I’ve been a big Silver Jews fan since I discovered the band as a teenager in the mid ’90s, but they’re not the kind of a band that I’d play at parties. Not even the kind of band that I’d usually listen to with other people around. The songs are too intimate, too emotional.

Members of ’90s indie slacker kings Pavement played on some of the early records, but the Silver Jews’ music doesn’t really fit neatly into the “indie rock” category. Berman’s clever lyrics are the stars of the songs, and his humor and pathos are almost more aligned with country music.

He wrote a lot about sadness and depression, but with enough surreal wit and craft that the music never invokes that exploitative, voyeuristic feeling of enjoying somebody else’s mental health problems.

Still, it’s tears-in-the-beer stuff. (One of my all-time favorite couplets, from the 1994 song “Trains Across the Sea”: “In 27 years, I’ve drunk fifty thousand beers/And they just wash against me, like the sea unto a pier.”)

He was only 52, and his death was an apparent suicide. His new band, Purple Mountains, just released their debut album. It’s great, but sad. There’s a song called “All My Happiness Is Gone,” and a track called “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” that I can’t get through without getting all choked up.

I meet him once, at a poetry reading he did in the Bay Area several years ago. I have a copy of Actual Air, his excellent 1999 collection of poems, which he signed, “Brad from Reno, Thanks for bringing a little of the Silver State. David.”